Who invented the art of cinema?

Western Today staff

Kaveh Askari, associate professor of English at Western Washington University, will give a lecture titled “Inventing Art Cinema: From the Museum to the Screen” at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, April 17 in the Bellingham City Council Chambers, 210 Lottie St., in Bellingham.

The free, public talk, an installment of the WWU College of Humanities and Social Sciences Dean’s Lecture Series, is co-sponsored by the City of Bellingham.

Who invented the art of cinema? Cinema is a relatively new art form, and so one might assume that its birth should be easy to pinpoint. But the origins of this great art of the 20th century intertwine with so many visual entertainments of the 19th century that it is no simple task to find the most important threads leading to the cinema we know today. This lecture looks back to the very beginning of motion pictures, in the 1890s, to address this elusive question of origin. Moving beyond the noisier contenders for inventor status like Thomas Edison, it looks at the work of a lesser-known cinema pioneer, Alexander Black, who provides a missing link in the history of moving-picture art.

On Oct. 9, 1894, at an art studio in Manhattan, the writer, photographer, and magic lanternist Alexander Black premiered “Miss Jerry,” his first “picture play.” Famous artists, novelists, and political figures gathered to discuss what was essentially a feature-length moving slide show, but one that walked in close step with the emerging cinema. The event was meant to provoke as much as entertain. It raised questions about the future of motion pictures at a time when the American public was gleaning its first glimpses of photographed movement on rotating disks and in peephole devices. Black sought input from his circle of writers and visual artists on how best to present this new kind of performance on his national lecture tours. On their advice, he fine-tuned the format and would spend the next decade performing his picture plays at community centers, schools, and museums across the eastern United States. Although largely unknown today, during the silent film era these performances were continually mentioned when writers posed the question, “who invented the art of cinema?”

Kaveh Askari received his doctorate from the University of Chicago. A specialist in cinema history, his research and teaching interests include silent film, 19th century visual culture, Iranian cinema, and global Hollywood. He is currently working on a study of picture craft and art education in American silent cinema. His work has appeared in “Film History, Screen, Early Popular Visual Culture” and several edited collections. He edited a special issue of “Early Popular Visual Culture” on the Middle East and North Africa in 2008.

Audience questions for Askari’s April 17 talk will be welcomed. The lecture will be recorded and shown on Bellingham TV Channel 10.

For more information on this lecture, please contact Katrina Schaeffer, WWU College of Humanities & Social Sciences, (360) 650-3763, or katrina.schaeffer@wwu.edu.