Charlotte Pryce

Charlotte Pryce on her latest magic-lantern performance

Charlotte Pryce, The Tears of a Mudlark (detail), 2018, hand-made magic lantern slide.

For over three decades, the London-born, Los Angeles–based artist and filmmaker Charlotte Pryce has been making what she calls “observational reveries,” delicate, handcrafted celluloid miniatures that capture the beauty of nature and science through discreet cinematic techniques. A parallel interest in early alchemical processes recently led her to the magic lantern, a pre-cinematic projector that utilizes transparent slides (often painted, printed, or photographed) and a single light source to illuminate still-image tableaux. Following her recent shows in Los Angeles, Rotterdam, and Brussels, Pryce’s latest magic-lantern performance, The Tears of a Mudlark, 2018, will head to the Centre Pompidou in Paris on February 6, 2019.

I’M A LONGTIME ADMIRER OF Georges Méliès and simple cinematic tricks. I find the latter enchanting and fun—they’re so specific to cinema. A lot of my work is done with an optical printer, in a continuation of that optical playfulness. But I also have an interest in early photography, specifically scientific photography and natural history films. These films often have prologues, after which the narrative perspective shifts to, for example, the life of a newt or the life of a salamander. It’s a reverie where you can slip into a truly cinematic experience from something much more mundane and ordinary.

With my recent work I’ve been moving from daydream-esque films to something approaching visions, and I think that the magic lantern has helped me on this path. My films have (mostly) been silent, but when I began experimenting with magic lanterns five years ago, it seemed that I would need to use language––in this case meaning narration. I thought that this work somehow needed a gentle guidance, as opposed to a silent reverie. When I have worked with sound it’s been specifically in relation to the image. With the magic lanterns, I’m making the slide and thinking of the sound at the same time––they develop together.

The inspiration for The Tears of a Mudlark was a photo taken in the 1930s or ’40s of two women biologists who had discovered the remains of a swarm of grasshoppers frozen in a glacier. I found the photo in the Los Angeles Public Library photo collection, along with vintage pictures of LA. I had been thinking about making a piece that was about strata—the layering of one deposit on top of another––perhaps because that’s what I was doing chemically in a lot of my films. I then began to think about the extraction of oil in LA and that legacy of pollution in relation to this story I wanted to tell, which was also about exhuming an illusion and attempting to bring that out of the magic lantern at the same time.

I began by rephotographing those images of LA and also shooting a lot of original material. I shot some of the slides on old color reversal film, which had an orangey base. I tried to eliminate the blue skies and great vibrant greens of LA and make them a lot more subdued. There wasn’t a deliberate attempt to re-create an antique or antiquated look of an early lantern. Instead, it needed to come from another kind of color palette––from a different time.

When I make my films, it’s just the film and me. It’s so personal and so intimate. But the magic lantern opens areas of production that are new to me. It’s more theatrical. So, while I’ve been working with silence for many years, the lantern performances offer a different world, one in which the audience is entreated to dream along, to listen to the unfolding of a story. In addition to narration and found sounds, this performance also utilizes a variety of substances and chemicals, including bleaches and oils, which help achieve certain effects, such as an image’s dissolving. So, there is a play between a two-dimensional illusion of photographic representation and the real-time creation of an illusion. I enjoy the tension that is produced by interjecting an illusionary time and realizing that you’re experiencing a moment happening.