Erkki Huhtamo

Elements of Screenology

A covered framework, partition, or curtain, either movable or fixed, which serves to protect from the heat of the sun or of a fire, from rain, wind, or cold, or from other inconvenience or danger, or to shelter from observation, conceal, shut off the view, or secure privacy; as, a fire-screen; a folding-screen; a window-screen, etc.; hence, such a covered framework, curtain, etc., used for some other purpose; as, a screen upon which images may be cast by a magic lantern; in general, and shelter or means of concealment.

Definition of 'screen', The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia, 1911 (1889)

Considering the centrality of screens in contemporary media culture, there have been surprisingly few attempts to define their "essence". True, in spite of their ubiquitous presence screens are strangely evasive, hard to grasp. They are constantly metamorphosing, appearing in new places and new forms. There are "Big Screens" and "Small Screens". Some are flat, some fat, attached to a box. Some are like the sun - active, radiating "life" of their own - while others are like the moon, passive, reflecting light projected at them. There are screens observed from a distance, and others touched and interacted with, held in one's hand. How to formulate a definition that would embrace them all? Does it even make sense to ask such a question?

This article is a preliminary investigation toward a historical phenomenology of the screen, or what I call "screenology". My treatment of the topic is based on one main premise: in spite of their ubiquity, screens have a history, which should be traced. Although there has been work done on specific areas (for example Siegfried Zielinski's research on the relationship between cinema and television and Lev Manovich's studies on the archaeology of the computer screen) the general history remains largely unwritten.[1] However, simply writing a chronicle of different kinds of screens would not make much sense. Screens should not be studied in isolation of the apparata they are part of. The notion of apparatus comes from cinema studies: it comprises not only the technical system, but also the elements of the viewing situation, including the relationship between the screen and the viewer, which is both physical and imaginary.[2] The viewer is physically related to the screen in the (viewing) space, and simultaneously mentally related to the space on the screen. The notion of the screen changes in time, and so does this relationship.

For historical reception studies the viewing experience has usually been a difficult challenge. Save in some rare cases, we don't have documented evidence about what went on in the viewers' heads in front of the screen. The viewers' attitudes have to be reconstructed indirectly, through secondary source material, as Miriam Hansen has demonstrated in her studies about early film spectatorship.[3] Although we cannot enter the individual viewer's head, we can at least try to understand the general conditions that prevailed in different situations and influenced each viewing experience. We can, for example, look at the constitution of the apparatus itself, including the design of its elements, for hints about the kinds of experiences it may have triggered. We can also use "projective" material, like literary texts, popular cartoons and other forms of ephemera to provide more clues and to verify our hypotheses. Still, the aim is to reconstruct "frameworks of possibilities", rather than try to determine the actual readings by individual viewers and audiences.

The ultimate goal is the history of "screen practice(s)", to adopt a concept used by Charles Musser in his studies of early and pre-cinema.[4] Such a history should comprise not only the evolution of different kinds of screens and the interconnections between them, but also account for their uses as part of different media apparata and within changing cultural, social and economic settings. This article provides a first step toward such a synthesis by identifying and discussing some of the key ingredients of such a history. The basic questions are simple, but the answers are difficult: how were our 20th century notions of the screen anticipated in earlier times? What connections, if any, are there between these "screens" from different times and places? As should be clear by now, this article does not look for an immutable "essence" of the screen; if the screen has an essence, it lies only in the sum total of all the historical manifestations of different screen practices, not beyond them like some Platonic idea.

Two litle Skrenes

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the foremost authority on the history of the English vocabulary, the word "screen" first appears in texts from the 14th and the 15th centuries, but its etymological origins remain unclear.[5] In the 16th century, and probably earlier, it was used to refer to a "contrivance for warding off the heat of fire or a draught of air". The screen meant, above all, a floor-standing piece of furniture, consisting of a sheet of lighter, often translucent material (paper, some kind of fabric, etc.) stretched in a wooden frame. There were also smaller handheld versions for ladies; a text from 1548 speaks about "Two litle Skrenes of silke to hold against the fier".[6] In addition to their main purpose, the often richly decorated hand-screens were also objects of fashion, aesthetic pleasure, and erotic play. Gradually the screens gained new connotations. Beside the natural elements, they were said to provide protection from "other inconvenience or danger, or to shelter from observation, conceal, shut off the view, or secure privacy", as the Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia (1911, orig. 1889) stated.[7] Whether from heat, cold or an intruding gaze, the screen was above all seen as a surface that protects a person by creating a barrier against something uncomfortable or threatening.

It was during the early 19th century that the word "screen" began to attain meanings that anticipated its current uses within media culture as a means of displaying and transmitting images. The earliest such occurrence recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from 1810 and reads: "To make Transparent Screens for the Exhibition of the Phantasmagoria". This represents a clear departure from the domestic sphere and entry into the world of public entertainment. Phantasmagoria was a show, which enjoyed great popularity around the turn of the 18th and 19th century. It was a variant of the older magic lantern projections, but with its own characteristics. In Phantasmagoria the audience was shown images projected from behind the screen with a highly mobile magic lantern (often mounted on wheels and moving along rails). One of the aims was to create a total sensory experience. This goal was served by the hidden technology. Phantasmagoria showmen did their best to keep their machinery secret; they pretended that their show had nothing to do with the old magic lanterns. They even made efforts to hide the presence of the screen itself by plunging the audience in total darkness and opening the curtains only then. The projected figures were presented as "apparitions" flying freely through the hall. To achieve this, inventing ways to make the screen semi-transparent - the easiest of which was making it wet - was crucial.

Of course, such an explanation of the emergence of the screen as a projection surface is too simplistic. The word may not have been used in such a meaning before 1810 (I have some doubts about this), but "screen practice" as a phenomenon goes certainly much further back in time. Phantasmagoria was based on earlier traditions of showmanship involving screens. Not only was it a further development of the travelling magic lantern show, it also built on the shadow show. Although shadow theatre seems to have originated in Asia (found in many places from Turkey to India, China and Indonesia), it became popular in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.[8] Most versions of the shadow theatre were based on essentially similar arrangements of the apparatus as Phantasmagoria. The audience sits in front of the screen, while the performers operate their shadow puppets behind it, between the screen and the light source.[9] The audience only sees the moving shadows on the screen, not the "machinery" creating them. In Phantasmagoria the use of shadow puppets was replaced by "fantascopes" (special magic lanterns) and projected lantern slides.[10]

In the magic lantern shows given by travelling showmen from the late 17th century on, the apparatus had been arranged differently: the audience frequently gathered around the showman and his magic lantern, which was placed fairly close to the screen. This arrangement was partly necessitated by the weakness of the illuminants available (candles or simple oil lamps), but it also emphasized the traditional role of the showman as a storyteller, who illustrated his stories with projected images. For people not familiar with such shows the presence of the mysterious "projection box" hardly diminished the "magic" of the event. Indeed, it may have served as an extra attraction. In similar fashion, early film audiences often admired the cinematograph as a technological marvel as much as the moving pictures it produced. Such a novelty easily wears off. By hiding the magic lantern behind the screen the Phantasmagoria showmen managed to re-create the lost mystery, utilizing to the full the possibilities of the new Argand lamp, a greatly improved oil illuminant. Yet in time also the Phantasmagoria lost its appeal, and the magic lantern became visible and attractive again, re-designed as a gorgeous instrument, a marvel of Victorian science.

Eliza on the Screen

During the 19th century the connection between magic lantern shows and projection screens became semantically well established. As just one example among many, a text from 1846 stated: "Magic lantern is a species of lucernal microscope, its object being to obtain an enlargened representation of figures, on a screen in a darkened room." (1846)[11] Throughout the 19th century the size of the screen, the auditorium and the projected image grew larger. This was made possible by the development of new, more powerful illuminants (oxy-hydrogen limelight, electric carbon-arc), yet the social force motivating this development was the increasing demand for entertainment and visual instruction among the new mass audiences, particularly in cities. In the late 19th century, especially in America, the magic lantern was even taken outside to project huge advertisements and election results on public buildings, now re-defined as gigantic projection screens.[12] In less than a century, the word screen had taken on totally new meanings, in line with the emergence of the urban, technological media society. If it had been a thing that protected a single person from something unwanted, it now exposed a whole group of people to the visual extravaganza of capitalist commodity culture.

Against this background it is anything but surprising that the word "screen" was assimilated into the early film culture. As a screen practice, early silent film showmanship was in many ways (although not exclusively) a continuation of the magic lantern show. Until well into the 1910s (and even later) most film presentations were actually hybrid forms of films, lantern slides, phonograph concerts and live stage performances. As film production and exhibition consolidated their roles as major new entertainment industries from the 1910s on, the other attractions gradually faded to the background: the center was reserved to the pleasures of the screen. With this development, the word often came to be used metonymically, meaning the film culture itself, written with capital letters: The Screen. Already in 1910 the Moving Picture World wrote that "people like to see on the screen what they read about", referring to their film preferences. And when Mrs. P. Campbell stated in 1920 that she felt "much too aged for Eliza on the Screen", she of course referred to acting in the movies, working in the film industry.

At some point the word "Big" was added in front of the "Screen". When and why this happened needs some further research. I suspect it had something to do with the appearance of new competing screen practices after the Second World War, particularly the television. The "Small Screen" promised to bring "the events as they happened" directly into the living room. As a response to this challenge, the film industry promised even more magnificent spectacles. Stretching the cinema screen to gigantic dimensions was the solution offered by Cinerama, Todd-AO, Cinemascope and various other systems in the 1950s. The most extreme form was the curved giant screen of the Cinerama, on which films were projected from three projectors simultaneously. With Cinerama, the expansion of the screen reached a paradoxical conclusion: by covering the spectators' total field of vision the screen in a sense disappeared; there was no sense of frame marking the border between the real and the imaginary. The screen turned into an environment which enveloped the audience completely. This anticipated more recent spectacles like IMAX theatres and virtual reality. Something similar had been, however, already achieved by the panorama, another large scale visual entertainment, a hundred years earlier.

Moonlight transparencies

What about the Small Screen? Can we locate its etymological origins? The answer remains more speculative than in the case of the big screen. First of all, one might want to recall the fact that from early on the fire-screens were often embellished with images. During the Victorian era the large folding screens used at homes for various purposes often became real collages of all kinds of printed images, recalling the countless "scrap books" created by women and children as their pastime (and even the contemporary habit of covering the door of the refrigerator with postcards, photos and little magnets). Although the images served primarily a decorative function, such screens anticipated the future development of media culture by displaying the enormous proliferation of cheap mass produced images in the 19th century, made possible by advances in printing and image reproduction technologies (lithography, photography, etc.). Indeed, the habit of decorating screens with images became so common, that mediocre artworks were sometimes compared by critics with such banal screens.

Already in the late 18th century the idea of the fire-screen was adapted to the purpose of displaying transparent paintings in new and stunning ways. Such paintings, "moonlight transparencies" or "diaphanoramas", like those by the Germans Georg Melchior Kraus and Franz Niklaus König, were mounted on floor-standing wooden frames.[13] They really only came to their right when illuminated from behind, glowing in brilliant colours. In the 19th century forms of such back-lighted images proliferated, ranging from "lithophanes", porcelain images displayed on lamp-shades or in decorative wooden or metal frames, to domestic viewing machines like the massive Megalethoscope, designed for the viewing of large albumen photographs with hand-coloured filters attached to the backside.[14] Peering into a viewing "hood" and simultaneously opening a door at the back of the device, the black and white photographs were transformed into fabulous coloured spectacles. These, and many other kind of "screens" anticipated the future role and placement of the television screen, although their potential for transmitting visual information or depicting movement was limited.

Going through dictionaries, we also find other meanings that have connected small screens with media images. In the 19th century the word was used to refer to upright frames for displaying photographs, both privately and in public exhibitions. In 1888, for example, a person wrote about "some of the most delightful panel screens for photographs I ever set eyes on".[15] More interesting, however, is the connection with the photographic camera itself. The "focusing screen", or the "screen of ground-glass" (1879) was defined as "a flat piece of glass on which the image formed by a camera lens is focused prior to making the exposure".[16] This common principle was actually inherited from an earlier device, the camera obscura, which anticipated the photographic camera and influenced its construction. In the camera obscura, known already in the middle ages, an image of the outside world is formed inside a darkened box, by means of rays of light entering it through a tiny hole.[17]

Especially since the Renaissance, after one had learned to place a lens into the "pinhole" for sharper image, camera obscuras became widely used both as artists' tools and as popular pastime. From the point of view of the development of the small screen this device is extremely interesting, although very few observers have noted the relationship so far, probably because the camera obscura is merely seen as a primitive precedessor of the (still) photographic camera. In smaller camera obscuras the image was often directed by means of an internal mirror (45 degrees) to a ground glass on top of the device. By placing a transparent sheet of paper on the ground glass, the artist was able to sketch the outline of the landscape. There were also room-sized camera obscuras, often situated at well-known tourist locations, by the seaside or on hilltops. The image of the outside world was directed by means of a lens and a mirror from the top of the room onto a horizontal table in its center. Visitors stood around the table and admired the moving scenery from the outside, often pointing at details with their finger. Both the ground-glass and the table functioned essentially as framed screens.


It is important to remember that all kinds of camera obscuras transmitted a live image and displayed it on a framed surface. Although technically simple and involving neither electronics nor antennas, they clearly anticipated the principle of the television, defined in 1926 by Nature: "Every possessor of a 'televisor' will be in a position to see on his screen the performers in operas and plays as well as hearing them."[18] Indeed, in 1879 a cartoonist working for the British magazine Punch and envisioning the tele-vision technology of the future, captioned his creation as "an electric camera obscura", purportedly invented by Thomas Edison.[19] The visionary cartoon showed a panoramic flat screen, mounted on the wall above a fireplace - a situation which has not been realized yet, although plasma screen technology now finally promises to fulfill the expectations. The screen in Punch also provided two-way communication, another fantasy which has never been fully made its breakthrough, in spite of innumerable predictions (and working prototypes!). Most screens still serve one-way traffic, although the proliferation of the computer screen is quickly changing the situation.

Beside its resemblance to television, the camera obscura also anticipated the computer screen by encouraging a tactile relationship. The image of the camera obscura was not meant to be just observed from a distance - it could be touched, by the tip of the pen or simply by one's finger. In its time, this created an ontologically interesting and novel situation: a kind of tele-touching, caressing living and moving entities from a distance, by means of a technical apparatus. Although this situation seems alien to the television spectatorship, it was encouraged in the 1950s in one of the early experiments of interactive television, the American series Winky Dink and You. Children were encouraged to draw on the television screen (actually on a sheet of transparent plastic attached to the screen) by "Magic Pens" according to the instructions given by the host John Barry while the program was running. The activity of the child in this situation is not all that different from that of an 18th century artist sketching a landscape with the help of his camera obscura. The spectatorial model proposed by Winky Dink and You never became a standard in the rigid world of TV broadcasting, but it has been in a way been realized by the introduction of paint programs and edutainment multimedia for personal computers.[20]

This article has not been meant as an exhaustive treatment of the history of screen practices. Rather, it has only hinted at the wealth of material and approaches available. Connections need to be established and new data uncovered, especially about the metaphorical uses of the word. As the Oxford English Dictionary demonstrates, the word screen has been given a large number of meanings, only a few of which have been dealt with here. How are these meanings connected? Is there any meaningful link between an 18th century fire-screen and a 20th century cathode-ray tube, other than the fact that both are "lighted" or "heated" from behind? Wasn't the traditional screen meant to isolate the person, to protect him/her from heat or a gaze, to increase his/her comfort and privacy? Isn't the function of the television screen the opposite, to expose the viewer to the "heat" and "obscenity" of commercial media culture, and to invite the public sphere to invade the private? It might be claimed, however, that the relationship between issues like private/public is never so clear-cut. While blocking from view, the traditional screens also raised curiosity and desire towards the other side (best demonstrated by the countless Japanese wood-block prints showing people observing the shadows of others cast on the paper screens serving as walls). The television screen also provides privacy by offering a safe voyeuristic vantage point to observe the event "on the other side". While exposing it also protects.

There would be other intriguing parallels not mentioned in this article. For example the history of the mirror and the discourses surrounding it should be taken into consideration. Observed from a cultural and mental historical point of view, the mirror has never been seen merely as a device reflecting your own image here and now; for centuries, it has been a vehicle for intricate spatial, poetic and erotic "screen-plays". In literature and in pictorial traditions it has often been treated as a kind of screen - a fantastic communication device capable of telling visual stories, displaying the future or virtually uniting people separated by physical distance. It is enough to think about a well-known fairytale like the Beauty and the Beast with its enchanted mirrors - this connection did not escape the attention of Jean Cocteau, whose film La Belle et le Bete (1946) used mirrors as information and communication screens in poetic and imaginative ways. A history of screen practices should not overlook such fantasies and discourses, which are often intertwined with more "real" - meaning: more material, more tangible - phenomena in strange ways. So perhaps it was not a coincidence, after all, that Cocteau's film appeared on the "Big Screen" exactly at the moment when television broadcasting was beginning its triumphal march into the living room.

© Erkki Huhtamo 2001

1. See Siegfried Zielinski: Audiovisions. Cinema and Television as entr'actes in history, translated by Gloria Custance, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1999 (orig. in German 1989); Lev Manovich: "Towards an Archaeology of the Computer Screen", Cinema Futures: Cain, Abel or Cable? The Screen Arts in the Digital Age, edited by Thomas Elsaesser and Kay Hoffmann, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1998, pp. 27-43.

2. See The Cinematic Apparatus, edited by Teresa de Lauretis and Stephen Heath, London and Basingbroke: Macmillan, 1980.

3. Miriam Hansen: Babel & Babylon. Spectatorship in American Silent Film, Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1991.

4. See particularly Charles Musser: The Emergence of Cinema. The American Screen to 1907, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1990. It should be noted that in the title of his book Musser uses the word "Screen" as synonymous with the institution of the cinema, which reflects an actual historical usage.

5. Much the same goes for the French "écran", which most dictionaries, including The Oxford English Dictionary, see as "closely corresponding with" the history and the meanings of"screen". All references to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) are to the II edition, edited by J.A. Simpson and E.S.C. Weiner, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.

6. OED, vol XIV, "screen".

7. The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia (CDC), New York: The Century Co, revised and enlarged edition, 1911 (orig. 1889), Vol VIII, "screen".

8. See Olive Cook: Movement in Two Dimensions, London: Hutchinson, 1963.

9. An interesting exception was late 19th century "Ombromanie", the art of hand shadows. Here the shadow artist stood in front of the screen and revealed his "machinery" (his own hands) to the audience. Demonstrating the skill and mastery of the performer was as important as the end result.

10. Although the shadow theatre was imported to Europe from the East, by late 18th century it enjoyed widespread popularity. Its influence can be felt in certain aspects of Phantasmagoria, and some shadow showmen are known to have experimented with the magic lantern as well. The true synthesis of these screen practices, however, took place in Japan. The Japanese Utsushi-e show, which emerged in the early 19th century, is an original form of popular media theatre, in which hand-held, highly mobile magic lanterns have taken the role of shadow puppets.

11. OED, vol XIV, "screen".

12. Such projections were often pictures on the front pages of popular newspapers like Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper (see f.ex. Nov. 23, 1872 and Oct. 25, 1884).

13. For examples, see Sehsucht. Das Panorama als Massenunterhaltung des 19. Jahrhunderts, Bonn: Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland & Stroemfeld/Roter Stern, 1993, pp.198-199.

14. Massive public spectacles like Daguerre's and Bouton's Diorama, which displayed gigantic slowly transforming paintings by means of manipulated back-lighting, were based on similar principles. All kinds of tiny toy versions, like the French Polyorama Panoptique, were also made.

15. OED, vol XIV, "screen".

16. Item.

17. The most complete history of the camera obscura is John Hammond: The Camera Obscura. A Chronicle, Bristol: Adam Hilger Ltd., 1981.

18. OED, vol XIV, "screen".

19. See Émmanuelle Toulet: Cinématographe, invention du siecle, Paris: Decouvertes Gallimard & Reunion des musees nationaux, 1988.

20. One reason why Winky Dink and You failed may have been the simple fact that children who did not own the magic pens and the drawing screen began to draw directly on the cathode ray tube, obviously destroying the TV set!