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Wide Angle 18.3 (1996) 85-100

The Changing Landscape of Modernity:
Early Film and America's "Great Picture" Tradition

(with an Appendix of North American Landscape Films in the Paper Print Collection of the Library of Congress)

Iris Cahn


"If the object of painting be to render faithfully, and yet poetically, what an artist's eye discerns, this is Niagara, with the roar left out!"

- Review of the painting Niagara, May 5, 1857 1

"To see Niagara taken with all its water drops in paroxysm, lost to their level, threatened with death by vapor, the rapids full of delugers outdeluged, drowners drowning, furies flying, is to arrest the heart and make science-devout the audience which came only to leer at lewdness..."

- Review of an early Biograph film, November 2, 1896 2

In the first ten years of cinema, more copyrights were issued in the United States for "actuality" films than for narratives. 3 A large subset of these films showcased the beauty and attractions of the natural landscape. The earlier [End Page 85] actuality films displayed the scenic wonders of Niagara Falls, Yosemite Valley, Yellowstone Canyon, the Catskill Mountains, and other tourist sites. Born of a cultural reverence for America's sublime places, the films answered mainstream curiosity about the locations they revealed. Films that featured the natural attractions of America were routinely included in early film programs.

The Paper Print Collection in the Library of Congress lists over seventy films of North American landscapes. Although the Collection contains only those which were copyrighted and survive in paper negative form, there are at least forty-five films of the American and Canadian West, fifteen of the Niagara Falls area, and nine of the Catskills region, alone. 4 These early shots of canyon, waterfall, and mountain were the popular fare. In most of them, landscape was not merely a background for action, but was the film's primary subject. The travel scenes and panoramas shot from mountain cliffs and railroad cars became part of a new economic relationship to once inaccessible parts of the world. They tied into forces of modernity that redefined the value of the landscape and the consumer. However, the appeal of the landscape actuality film was short-lived, over-shadowed by the rise of the story film in the early 1900's. Quite soon in its development, cinema seemed to be diverted from a preoccupation with the attraction or display, to a fascination with story or narrative integration. 5 [End Page 86]

To better understand the arch of the landscape films' brief popularity and decline, 6 this essay reaches back to a time forty years before the films were shot. Into recent research tracing the origins of early cinema, I insert consideration of a popular nineteenth-century painting tradition that precedes and suggests a connection to the earliest landscape films: the American "Great Picture" genre of the 1850's to 1880's. The landscapes of the American Great Pictures need to be included in a discussion of the pre-cinematic because of their similarities of subject and exhibition, and because they foreground issues of class, exchange, technology, and systems of scientific belief which characterize the sweeping rush to modernity of the last century. Positioned by price and venue above the comparable amusements of the diorama and panorama, the Great Pictures exist in a cultural hierarchy of "high" versus "low" art, evoking separations of class and exclusivity especially relevant to recent discussions of movie audience composition and the appeal of early motion pictures. In the phenomenon of the Great Picture, strands of public/private, actuality/narrative, exchangeable/singular coincide with the vast conceptual shift foregrounded in current debates over the construction of the observer, and the divergent paths of early cinema. This essay presents some of the proto-cinematic details of exhibition, consumption, and subject matter at work in the mid-1800s, and compares the Great Picture's affect and fate to one of its logical descendents, the landscape film of early cinema. 7

Similarities in Modes of Exhibition and Subject Matter

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pp. 85-100
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