Critics’ Picks

Ernie Gehr, still from Panoramas of the Moving Image: Mechanical Slides and Dissolving Views from Nineteenth-Century Magic Lantern Shows (“The Rat Eater”), 2006, DVCAM digital clones transferred to hard drive, dimensions variable.

New York

“Panoramas of the Moving Image”

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
September 12–February 25

In Ernie Gehr’s film Serene Velocity (1970), the image of an institutional corridor darkens, jumps forward, brightens, and jerks back, eventually breaking down into a pulsing sequence of rectangles and jittery diagonals. Generating these effects by adjusting the zoom lens of a stationary camera, Gehr makes a persuasive and vivid argument for his definition of film as “a variable intensity of light.” The subject of an ongoing film retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, Gehr might at first be perfunctorily placed in the category of nonnarrative experimental filmmakers who emerged in the 1960s (Hollis Frampton, Stan Brakhage, Michael Snow, etc.). A fascinating addendum to the retrospective currently on view in the galleries outside MoMA’s Titus theaters, however, suggests that Gehr’s imagination reaches further back into cinema’s past.

“Panoramas of the Moving Image” displays a selection of magic lantern slides, zoetropes, phenakistiscopes, and digital images of thaumotropes, most of them from Gehr’s personal collection. It is at first surprising that this cluttered bric-a-brac of Victorian culture, rife with ornament and oafish caricatures, could inform a decidedly modern sensibility. Underneath the picaresque or macabre trappings of these artifacts, however, their basic manipulations of light suggest the groundwork for Gehr’s examination of film’s structural properties. The exhibition’s centerpiece is a five-channel installation by Gehr that demonstrates how magic-lantern slides crudely achieved fades, dissolves, pans, and other effects that now constitute the visual language of cinema. It is a startling juxtaposition of digital projection’s frictionless streaming of images and the slides’ mechanical amalgams of levers and switches. Some of these effects hinge on the retina’s tendency to retain an image for a moment past its disappearance, a phenomenon known as the persistence of vision. What becomes evident in this exhibition’s nimble overview of the optical entertainments that preceded film is how much vision has changed.