magic lantern show: Colour

??????????????????????????????? Ad for James and Sons CTA F1244 S2119 it34.32

In the 1920’s after a decade and a half behind the lens as a photojournalist, William James Sr. was ready to take on a more public role. He had accumulated thousands of negatives chronicling the life of Toronto, it was time to emerge from the shadow of the news desk photography editors and use his visual archives to present his own take on what he had witnessed.


The City of Toronto Archives holds 5,385 black and white and hand-coloured glass transparencies within the James Family Collection. This is the legacy of James’ career as what was known, in the days before moving pictures, as a “lanternist,” an individual with a mastery of lantern slide production, projection and presentation. Offering mind-broadening experiences that exposed those in the back waters of civilization to important events, faraway places and “wonders of the world”  these itinerant show men were a feature of 19th c life.  They were not the only purveyors of magic lantern shows. Trading on their verifiable emotional power, churches and missions used them to lure the masses to worship.

It is now fully recognised and acknowledged that by means of pictures, the eye and mind are more impressed than they would be otherwise, and coloured pictures appeal to the imagination more especially of the uncouth, than any address or sermon. Lantern Services for the Mission and Church, The Art of Projection and Complete Magic Lantern Manual, by An Expert, 1893 p. 103

By the twenties however the magic lanterns, especially in urban centres, had lost much of their power to inspire awe and wonder. In their new user-friendly form they were just one more electrically-powered tool of modern communication. However, until 1936 when Kodachrome colour 35 mm film slides were introduced by Kodak, slides continued to be produced much as they had been in the 19th century. Like prehistoric insects preserved for eternity in amber, particles and the odd hair can be seen trapped between the layers of glass of James’ slides. Examining closely the slides and their assembled order for presentation as a particular type of illustration reveals further interesting traces of history.

the Art of Hand-Colouring Lantern Slides

“Sweat shops” where women and girls were put to work hand-painting photographs and glass transparencies were denounced by the author of The Art of Projection as much for their debasing of the art of slide painting as for their exploitative labour practices.

Coloured Slides the Art of Projection p. 145   The Art of Projection

Painting photographs, when done properly, maintained the author, was an art form in its own right. The painter not only improved on the black and white image but revealed a new expressive dimension to what existed in latent form in the photograph.

Where a photo is weak, or wanting detail the artist will strengthen it up in painting and in the use of figures, they will be so painted up as to stand out in relief, and rotundity, strengthening the shadows, and often merely using the photograph as a basis whereon to work-up his picture.

An example of the use of figures as a focal point and to suggest scale is seen in James’ view from the top of Bathurst Hill. He had photographed the city from the same location a decade earlier with figures in similar pose. In the span of time separating the two photos, farm fields and distant church spires were replaced by telephone poles, billboards and paved roads. The use of red on one of the billboards draws the eye to the left and the middle ground that is set in balance with the figures in the foreground to the right .

??????????????????????????????? top of Bathurst Hill S1229 it 80.7

Those portions of the foreground in the light should be painted in with a brownish green in which the yellow must predominate and for the bushes and trees, a tint composed of yellow and burnt sienna…

The Art of Projection p. 151

Highlighting with Colour

Among the 50-odd slides in each set of the lantern slide collection, typically only a handful at most are coloured.  Set 80 appears to be a look back at high point of British immigrant arrival and was perhaps created for this audience to share reminiscences of getting to know the city. Within this set, slides 8,9 and 12 focus on the harbour in different seasons and from varying vantage points. The spectacle of the lake, a hallmark of the Toronto experience, is celebrated in watercolours within the water, snow and ice.

CTA F 1224 S2119 it 83.8 Harbour and skyline from islands col Harbour and skyline from islands  F1244 S2119 it 83.8

CTA F 1224 S2119 it 83.9 Man on ice, Hanlan's West Point 1907  Man on ice, Hanlan’s West Point 1907   F1244 S2119 it83-9

CTA F 1224 S2119 it 83.12 Storm on Lake Ontario (taken from Centre Island) col Storm on Lake Ontario from Centre Island  F1244 S2119-it-83.12

In contrast to these painterly approaches, colour is used in a cursory way to highlight details of a photograph that are important to the story it tells. In the scene of the British Welcome League‘s reception room below, the chirpy signs are crudely daubed in yellow as a reminder of the encouragement dispensed along with other forms of support by the BWL.

???????????????????????????????  CTA F1244 S2119 it83-23 “group of people BWL reception room, 1908

Set 23 is one among the many sets that are a cavalcade of “remember when” and “look where we are now” photographs assembled by James for his lantern shows in the twenties. Within these, a select number of images were colourized because they had become more meaningful or valuable in light of historical events. A portrait of MacKenzie King taken long before his first election as Prime Minister in 1921 was given show-stopping saturated colour to underscore his new importance.

???????????????????????????????  MacKenzie King and parents F 1244 S2119 it23.45

Many slides in this set showcase James’ command of sports photography. In this context, colour is used to boost the adrenalin value of the projected larger than life swimmers, aviators, rowers, race drivers, etc.

23.18 couple in canoe 23.18 couple in canoe


Family Album

The biographical details behind William James photographs are broadly outlined in the archives’ finding aid. Sadly, the original way the slides would have been identified in an illustrated show will never be fully known. Further, because their titles in the archives’ database is a combination of staff guesswork along with the occasional label that may have survived, it is difficult to know precisely what information they were intended to convey.

What is clear however is that James liked to use his own family’s pictures in his lectures. The James family story in set 23 was woven in to a larger discussion of the city, its neighbourhoods, families and traditions. These more intimate photographs have the warmth of soft colours or sepia shades.

??????????????????????????????? making home plum pudding S2119 it 23.43

???????????????????????????????  families outside houses S2119 it 23.44

Set 91, on the other hand, is a private family album slide show. Yet, because the James family like a great number of Toronto families had sons who went to war and mothers and sisters who worried and knitted for them and visited them at Camp Borden, the private album tells a public story.

??????????????????????????????? 91.30 soldiers and wives, Camp Borden 1914 F1244 S2119 it 91.30

It begins with photos of James’ offspring as babies, then as children at play, young men in uniforms, and finally young adult parents and workers. Among these photos one stands out. Two young men (possibly James brothers) lie close together in fresh uniforms on the grass. The blue navy and brown army uniforms seem to be delectably dished up in a lush bed of green. A sacrificial offering of two young men? Or a casual moment of repose reflecting a close comradeship to be further celebrated through military service? The photo brings together the banal and monumental, the private and public in the symbolic associations of a seemingly casual snapshot.

??????????????????????????????? young soldier and sailor lying in grass  F1244 S2119 it 91.36

Colourizing in Retrospect

We may arrogantly assume that hand coloured photography was how people of the time imagined colour photography would be, once it was invented. However, unlike colour photography where the colour we see is more or less faithfully reflected on film and a shot can be endlessly reproduced, the colouring of a photograph highlights its material form and its power as an object of projection.

Just as the lanternist would use dissolve and other transformation effects to bring a picture to life before an audience, the hand colouring of a photograph visually animates an image for a particular dramatic intent. William James used colour within images, the juxtaposition of images and dramatic narrative structure to bring home to audiences his sense of how the present had emerged from the past and how his private life merged with the life of the city and the times.

Today, a debate rages on whether digitally colourinzing archival film misrepresents its historical meaning. At the same time with a few simple clicks of the keyboard any freshly taken photo can instantly acquire the patina of age with sepia colour effects. It could be argued that we find ourselves again in a new age of colourization; the hand coloured photograph however has been replaced by new techniques that draw us through the frame of the picture into what we want to see.

??????????????????????????????? swimmers greasing F1244 S2119 it23.16

Why not a Magic Lantern Show at the City of Toronto Archives?

The James magic lantern slides are reproduced in this blog post in the most token way. They were shot with my camera as they appeared on the screen of a classic, hand winding microfilm reader. The City of Toronto Archives explains that they cannot scan these images because to do so properly they would have to run the risk of destroying them as they are separated from their glass mounts. However, it would be possible to present some of the slides to the public as they were originally seen ninety years ago. Lanternists such as Ottawa’s Lindsey Lamberts carry on the tradition and techniques that James would have used. Why not invite him to present a James magic lantern show in the archives auditorium at the scale and back lit colour glory that they deserve? To accompany this, in the spirit of projection, contemporary Toronto writers could develop compelling new interpretations of the image sets James assembled.

Market Square

Cookie Roscoe demonstrates how to hand colour black and white prints See previous blog post.

006 016 019

Further Reading/Listening

Are colourized historical photographs delightful or deceitful? Q The Podcast (at 33:40 into the program)

Matt Novak: Are Colorized Photographs Rewriting History?

The Magic Lantern Society, UK

Lantern Slides, How to Make and Colour Them, 1895

McCord Museum, The Magic Lantern

Canadian Colour, digitally colourized historical photos from Canada


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