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Svensk film och visuell masskultur 1900

Cinema was not invented in 1895 on a Parisian boulevard, but earlier and in a number of places. Even though moving images were considered a novelty at the time, they hardly transformed the visual mass culture in a radical sense during the 1890s. The invention of cinema was rather a technological development provoked by an entertainment industry striving for new markets and increased revenues. Moving images, thus, became one commercial medium among many others in the contemporary visual culture. If one understands modernity as a period of flourishing visual attractions set in an expanding entertainment sector, cinema might even be termed a peripheral technological medium.

The dissertation Swedish Film and Visual Mass Culture 1900 [Svensk film och visuell masskultur 1900] situates cinema within an entertainment discourse around turn-of-the-century Stockholm and Sweden. As an international medium, cinema emerged as part of a broad visual mass culture — which by 1910 it had come to dominate. This transformation of the public entertainment sphere was international and hardly specific for Sweden. "Prefilmic" attractions and visual technologies were, consequently, slowly driven out of competition — by 1907 cinema was the most significant visual medium in Sweden. The dissertation, however, tries to avoid teleological connotations attached to the term prefilmic. 19th century mass culture is, accordingly, discussed in its own right. The visual mass culture from which cinema sprang, involved an array of mass produced images — stereoscopic photographs, lantern slides and postcards — as well as popular attractions ranging from wax museums and peepshows to fairs and visual exhibitions. Cinema took advantage of earlier visual technologies, not only in terms of content, but also in terms of production methods and commercial strategies.

At the core of Swedish Film and Visual Mass Culture 1900 lies a number of local city films [figure 1.] produced in 1907 and 1908 by Sweden's leading film company at the time, Swedish Biograph [AB Svenska Biografteatern]. These approximately thirty films showing smaller cities in Sweden, belonged to a topographical tradition of nationally produced postcards and slides.

Figure 1.

One of the dissertations main theses claims that mass produced images from the late 19th century are the foundation of early nonfiction film production. In fact, early filmmakers producing travelogues, phantom and scenic rides, appropriated a topographic genre that had dominated mass production of images since the 1850s. In the Lumière brothers' films, for example, previously reproduced geographical views were framed, but within a new technological setting. During the period 1850 to 1930, topographical motifs changed marginally, whereas the visual technologies producing them shifted abundantly.

The objective of the dissertation is based on two requisites. The first idea is to use film and photographs as forms of visual historical sources. According to Alan Trachtenberg "historical knowledge declares its true value by its photographability." Moreover, film history does not solely refer to the history of (fiction) film, but also to how moving images came to document the past. Swedish nonfiction film during the 1910s was, for example, in the trade press regarded as a document providing historical and national information. Thus, visual media — as illustrations in the dissertation — do not only present images of what Sweden once looked like. Film and photographs also act as carriers of micro historical evidence on everyday history, this in addition to visually informing on aesthetic ideals, topographic choices and mediating practices.

The second tenet is to regard mass produced images and films with geographic content, as possible substitutes for travel. Already during the 1850s, stereoscopic images were praised for their ability to stage a mobilised gaze. The dissertation is in this perspective, a visual mobility study focusing the touristic and simulating aspects of visual mass culture. During the late 19th century, as mass produced stereographic images became less expensive, even the working classes were offered the opportunity to perceptually visit exotic places. In the 1890s, the Keystone View Company, for example, began selling stereoscopic images arranged in larger sets including detailed descriptions of the images, maps — with indicated camera position — as well as various orientation references to simulate a mediated experience of remote presentness. In addition to geographical images, visual travel attractions — as the painted panorama "Maréorama" at the Paris world exposition in 1900 — also simulated voyages. Cinema in turn, developed into an even more elaborate heterotopic medium (to speak with Michel Foucault) with a capacity to represent a number of places within the space of the movie theatre. Especially geographical nonfiction film had the ability to expand space and visually transport audiences to foreign places. "I have seen Niagara thunder over her gorge in the noblest frenzy ever beheld by man — I have watched a Queensland river under the white light of an Australian moon — I have watched an English railroad train [...] and I didn't have to leave Chicago for one moment", as Frederick Starr poetically revealed in the Chicago Tribune in 1909. The best example of cinematic simulation of topographies in early cinema was of course Hale's Tours. Hale's, however, did not establish a branch in Sweden, although a number of phantom rides were shot in Norway.

Swedish Film and Visual Mass Culture 1900 is the result of in-depth historical research at a number of archives and libraries in Stockholm, Berlin and Paris. The dissertation is a film historical study — to a large extent based on the historical reception of cinema and visual mass culture. The empirical material is mostly gleaned from daily newspapers and the trade press. The first chapter provides a historical survey of stereoscopic images, set within a mass cultural sphere centred on the peepshow Kaiserpanorama. Stereoscopic photographs became popular already during the 1850s. According to William C. Darrah, the most remarkable accomplishment in stereo at the time "was the photographing of almost every city in Europe." For viewers, 19th century topographical stereo images aroused the same visual desire for foreign spaces as cinemas' later telescoping of these. Hermann von Helmholtz went so far as to state in 1857, that looking at stereoscopic views gave him "a more precise impression of a landscape" than an actual view — at least, he added, to people unfamiliar with the area. Since there was no production of Swedish stereoscopic images until the 1890s, the chapter focuses on the early French stereo industry. For example, it is argued that the genre of instantaneous views [vues instantanées], popular during the 1860s, was particularly important as a predecessor of early nonfiction film at large.

On the 6th of October 1889 the Panorama international opened in central Stockholm. The visual attraction was advertised as "the cheapest and most comfortable way of travelling round the earth." Panorama international was a Swedish branch of the Kaiserpanorama, a large mechanical viewing apparatus invented by August Fuhrmann in the early 1880s. Fuhrmann was a German entrepreneur who, in a precinematic fashion, had managed to combine and develop the individual craze for looking at stereo images into a machine offering collective visual consumption. The Kaiserpanorama consisted of a wooden cylinder with seats for 25 persons; mounted in the apparatus before each seat was a pair of lenses through which visitors looked at hand-coloured stereoscopic glass slides depicting various topographies and actualities.

Fuhrmann developed his enterprise in Berlin into an image empire. In 1910 he is said to have controlled exhibitions in more than 250 branches across Europe. In the central archive up to 100.000 stereoscopic views were stocked [figure 2.].

Figure 2.

One of the more intriguing aspects of Fuhrmann's invention was its establishment as a technological phenomenon primarily in rural Eastern and Central Europe. Throughout territories where German was spoken, a number of panoramas were set up — from Eastern Prussia to the outpost of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Hence, as one of the more important prefilmic technologies, the Kaiserpanorama reframes — at least geographically — the history of visual media traditionally centred on western countries.

As a commercial establishment, Fuhrmann's panoramas were known under different names. Individual franchisers, as the owner Robert Brehmer in Stockholm, bought rights to a name and viewing apparatus from Fuhrmann whose distribution company rented them weekly exchanged slides. Thus, the distribution chain was reminiscent of the transportation of later film reels, a logistical enterprise Fuhrmann anticipated. Still, as Stephan Oettermann has shown, Fuhrmann also summarised the history of 19th century visual entertainment in his machine, taking, for instance, "the visual appropriation of nature from the [painted] panorama."

A number of Swedish newspapers wrote reviews of Panorama international when it opened in Stockholm. Liberal Dagens Nyheter, for example, praised the illusionary lightning, while the low entrance fee surprised the conservative Stockholms Dagblad. The nominal entrance fee turned Panorama international primarily into a working class entertainment. But as the conservative Nya Dagligt Allehanda stated, it did belong to a larger European consortium; to the unknown reviewer this seemed to guarantee law and order. Interestingly, a number of reviewers ascribed to Panorama international a both pedagogic and didactic usefulness. "There is no doubt", wrote Dagens Nyheter, "that these images should be of great pleasure, in particular to our youth and children. In fact, they ought to be of real instructive help in lectures on geography. ... To parents, we highly recommend this panorama." It seems that Fuhrmann's viewing machine fulfilled social expectations of entertainment as Bildung. The Kaiserpanorama was both an optical toy attracting the masses and a topographic educational instrument in the service of the nation state.

Compared to other visual attractions in Stockholm, the press coverage on Panorama international was different. During the late 1880s and early 1890s a number of entertainment nodes were established in Stockholm. Next to Panorama international, lay for example, the Oriental Maze Salon — a magic wax and mirror cabinet with statues and lightning effects. In the vicinity, the Swedish Panoptikon also opened in 1889. The latter wax museum became very popular, hosting a range of exhibits, such as the Edison phonograph. The same year Stockholm likewise got its first permanent painted panorama. Nearby the huge panorama building, the outdoor folk-museum Skansen was established in 1891. And between Skansen and the panorama, the Biological Museum — a museological panorama, which featured a Nordic diorama with stuffed animals — opened in 1893. Newspapers reported on these visual attractions on different notes. In general, Panorama international and the Biological Museum were more appreciated than the others. As attractions based on optical illusion and visual information on topographies, they incorporated discourses of both amusement and enlightenment. Although initially perceived as indications of Stockholm becoming a European metropolis, major establishments as the Swedish Panoptikon and the panorama building, were thus primarily received as amusing visual attractions. In comparison to the Panorama international and the Biological Museum, they were not framed as displaying a dialectics of entertainment and visual education.

In 1893 Fotografisk tidskrift [The Photographic Journal] published an invitation to a stereographic competition arranged by the bourgeois Swedish Tourist Association. The Swedish Tourist Association, established in 1885, claimed the best advertisement for Sweden as stereoscopic images of the country's topography. It seems the association was annoyed that only one series of Swedish images had been presented at Panorama international.

Chapter two in Swedish Film and Visual Mass Culture 1900 takes its point of departure from the visual strategies deployed by the Swedish Tourist Association — and, ultimately, how these related to the emergence of a national visual mass culture culminating in the Stockholm exhibition of 1897 [figure 3.].

Figure 3.

The development of tourism in late 19th century Sweden was not only caused by infrastructural changes as the construction of railroads. The mediation of Sweden trough photography also played a crucial role in informing on national touristic matters. The visual aesthetic behind the work of the Swedish Tourist Association was primarily taken from a romantic discourse — especially vivid during the national-romantic renaissance of the 1890s.

Collecting regional topographic photographs was pivotal for the Swedish Tourist Association. In 1905, for instance, it boasted the largest collection of views in the country. The increased tourism in turn-of-the-century Sweden also stimulated the growing postcard industry. National postcards were printed by the million, and as postcards were purchasable even for the working classes, they became the most common images of Sweden before the First World War. The Tourist Association, however, did not decide to produce any postcards.

Given the Swedish Tourist Association's interest in photography, it is hardly surprising that Fuhrmann, the owner of the Kaiserpanorama, tried to establish contact. In a letter from 1893 he requested to be given a few negatives from which to produce stereo images for distribution. The association, however, although keen on distributing as many photographs of Sweden as possible, hesitated when it came to a partnership with mass cultural overtones. The association did, however, produce a few slides, primarily for international exhibition, but as a national enterprise for the well-to-do, it did not wish to be associated with the popular culture at the time. Symptomatically, film was first mentioned in a publication of theirs from 1923.

Cinema was reintroduced in Sweden during the Stockholm exhibition of 1897. The Lumière brothers — in co-operation with the Swedish firm Numa Peterson — showed film at the exhibition. The Lumière photographer Alexandre Promio also shot a number of new films on location. The dissertation discusses the Lumière film strategy and its relation to later Swedish film production. As in many other western countries, few cinemas were established in Sweden before 1905. Instead, travelling showmen in search of an audience, projected lantern slides combined with film. In fact, the majority of Swedes were introduced to moving pictures at local performances. Swedish film companies, however, began regular production of primarily nonfiction film after 1904. As was the case in Europe at large, early commentators in the press considered nonfiction film more valuable than fiction film. Swedish film reformers alike tried to influence production towards a discourse of sobriety. Especially geographical film was perceived as instructive with a potential to intellectually foster through visual perception.

One of Promio's films shot during the summer of 1897 was AVESTA: LES CHUTES (Lumière, 1897), a film reminiscent of a number of later local city films treated in chapter three. By 1909 Swedish Biograph had produced and distributed some thirty short actuality films depicting various Swedish towns. Visual strategies were first and foremost picked up from the national postcard and slide industry [figure 4.], dominated by companies as the art publisher Eliasson [Axel Eliasson Konstförlag] and Hasselblad [Hasselblads fotografiska AB].

Figure 4.

Most of the local city films — with titles like IMAGES FROM KALMAR (Swedish Biograph, 1907) or IMAGES FROM MALMÖ (Swedish Biograph, 1908) — are lost but a limited number remain in fragmentary form at the Swedish Television Archive.

Internationally, almost everyone within film business knew that local pictures were extremely popular. In an issue of Kinematographische Rundschau from 1907, for example, a report stated how cinema owners could profit from local nonfiction film of recent events. A similar article in Moving Picture World 1909, lamented upon the nickelodeon craze for local pictures. While Swedish Biograph pursued their local strategy to become successful, their local city films appropriated in moving form what national postcards had depicted a few years earlier. Nearly all of Swedish Biograph's local city films began with a train arriving at the towns' railway station suggesting an imaginary visit. Thereafter sights and touristic attractions were filmed, mostly by way of slow pans. Sometimes city films included scenes from the local harbour. While postcards depicted empty spaces, Swedish Biograph sought to film persons in places with movement, focusing, for example, on local markets and schoolyards.

It comes as no surprise that Swedish Biograph's local city films were popular among the locals. Gawking into the film camera, people curiously watched the filmic apparatus, and sometimes the technology became the attraction instead of the depicted city. These films, thus, triggered a strange visually mediated tourism that turned city inhabitants into visitors in their own town. Swedish Biograph, however, was not only a film production company — it also owned movie theatres. Hence, a local city film was most likely shot because the company had bought or built a new cinema in the town depicted. As advertisement for the movie theatre, city life was filmed, and in a meta filmic way the images recorded occasionally included sequences of the new cinema as well. People were then, through advertisement in the local daily press, enticed to see what their city looked like — with the possibility that they might see friends, family and maybe even themselves on the screen.

It remains difficult to state what kinds of audience were attracted to see Swedish Biograph's city films. A meta sequence shot outside the local cinema in IMAGES FROM NYKÖPING (Swedish Biograph, 1908) indicates a heterogeneous audience from different classes, predominately made up of youth and workers. The spaces depicted in local city films, however, were not the ones were the working classes lived. On the contrary, Swedish Biograph concentrated on bourgeois spaces and scenic sights in the local towns, maybe with an intention to socially upgrade the audience. Nevertheless, it is most likely that working class spectators dominated the audiences — more so in larger cities were the middle class had other attractions to visit. Yet, in terms of class, rural audiences were far from homogenous.

Chapter four deals with similar cinematic inscriptions of space as in the previous chapter, but the local focus is extended to an international perspective. The argument is that prior strategies used by the company, were transformed to match demand in the market for longer feature films. As a matter of fact, an almost identical spatio-inscriptional film aesthetic as in the local city films, was the principal idea behind a number of feature films shot during a film expedition Swedish Biograph financed in 1911. Like the films shot in authentic settings produced by the film company Kalem, Swedish Biograph wanted to make high class feature films based on scripts that made it necessary for actors to travel and visit a range of Swedish cities as well as some European and American metropolises. To speak with Fatimah Tobing Rony, visual inscriptions from these topographies were to be taken "as evidence of the real." For Swedish audiences there was to be no doubt that scenes had been shot both locally and abroad — ultimately, this became a commercial enticement in the advertisement for the films produced. Thus, fictional scenes were shot in different Swedish cities, but foremost internationally. In Berlin scenes were filmed in front of the Brandenburger Gate, in Monaco at the Casino, and in New York passing the Statue of Liberty on a boat. In Paris, the actors Lilly Jacobsson and Victor Arfvidson were seen travelling through the city visiting a number of touristic sights. Moreover, Swedish Biograph not only wanted their feature films to have a cosmopolitan atmosphere. In some of the films produced, the local film tradition was even more evident, since special copies featured local sequences depending on where the film was to be shown. Thus, when, for example OPIUMHÅLAN / THE OPIUM DEN (Swedish Biograph, 1911) was shown in the city of Kalmar, the version screened included interchangeable scenes shot in Kalmar.

Unfortunately, no prints of the films produced from the material taken during the 1911 trip have survived. Some fictional scenes and nonfiction footage, however, remain at the Swedish Television Archive. To some extent it seems that the lost feature films included sequences of nonfictional travelogue character. For example, documentary pans over the Niagara Falls were inserted into one of the fictional narratives.

A second aspect discussed in chapter four involves the mixing of documentary and fictional footage. Using Richard Abel's notion of the "bricolage model", early cinema's strategy of combining footage of different origin was, hence, also apparent in Swedish film production. The bricolage model, likewise, sheds light on the contemporary film culture. Film programs were for instance, organised according to a schema where fiction was altered with nonfiction and even vaudeville acts could be explained using the bricolage model.

The concluding chapter of Swedish Film and Visual Mass Culture 1900, finally, summarises the presented notions on medialised topographies by discussions on the usage of visual media within museological institutions. During the 1890s photography became a museological tool in Sweden, for example in the visual preservation of local national customs. Arthur Hazelius, the founder of Skansen and the Nordic Museum, already in the 1870s collected regional photographs, much in the same manner as the Swedish Tourist Association. By 1900 photography had not only become part of an official museological discourse on preservation, but also notably a visual medium for presenting historical spaces, as in Old Swedish Cities — a publication explicitly based on the topographically indexical and mnemonic qualities of the photographic image.

The initiative to make a photographical inventory of old Swedish cities partly came from the Nordic Museum. The publication of the first part of Old Swedish Cities in 1908, testifies that by 1910 a commercial topographic discourse (including stereoscopic photographs, slides, postcards and film) was being transformed, or rather, was incorporated into a museological discourse with the purpose to collect emblematic Swedish spaces. The increased use of photography at the Nordic Museum after 1900, for example, stresses this development. Naturally, geographical images continued to be commercially popular. What is interesting, however, is how similar media products made an impact in the national museum culture as visual documents.

During the 1910s the Nordic Museum began using cinema as a way of documenting national ethnography as well as Swedish rural spaces. In the 1920s production of cultural historical documentaries became more frequent, due to the museum being financially supported by surplus money from the Swedish Board of Film Censors. From 1926 to 1940, the Nordic Museum produced hundreds of nonfiction films on local Swedish ethnography. Subjects ranged from dance films and local weddings to church weekends in the north. In a text entitled "Cultural historical film. Document of the first order", one of the amanuenses of the museum, Torsten Lenk, compared film sequences depicting Swedish ethnographical items to regular museological objects. For Lenk, cinema was the primary medium for capturing rural activities, since moving images had the ability to register continuous series of unfolding events. Particularly, the production of local dance films came to use cinema's alleged capacity for authentic representation. Almost none of the dance films had any cuts; instead they were shot with a static camera, that did not reframe even when dancers moved out of the frame.

Cinema was, thus, used as a light archive with a natural ability to store regional information. One of the conclusions of the dissertation is, therefore, that there was an imagistic mass cultural shift in the contemporary media discourse, from the market towards the museum. As regards to topographic images, by 1910, they were gradually transformed from mass cultural commodities into visual museological objects.

Artikkelen er basert på en doktorgradsavhandlingen Svensk film och visuell masskultur 1900, fra Filmvetenskapliga institusjonen, Stockholms Universitet 2001. Avhandlingen har nylig blitt publisert på Aura forlag (2001).

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