In 1896, the Russian writer, Maxim Gorky watched in awe as the Lumière brothers showcased their latest optical invention – the Cinematograph. As he sat, plunged into darkness, the ghostly projections of people, places and machinery evoked a reaction in Gorky, more in keeping with having witnessed paranormal activity than an event of scientific and technological wonderment. His first impression of the cinema resulted in his famous published response: “Last night I was in the Kingdom of Shadows.” As the writer tried to make sense of the apparitions he had seen the previous evening, he spoke little of the mechanics of cinema and told a tale more akin to a gothic novel:
If one could only convey the strangeness of this world. A world without colour and sound…Not life, but a shadow of life… It is terrible to see, this movement of shadows, nothing but shadows, these spectres, these phantoms.Maxim Gorky
This encounter with the moving image occurred towards the end of the nineteenth century which had witnessed an extraordinary surge of technological advancement. The invention of optical equipment such as the reflecting telescope and the camera and the refinement of the microscope had greatly assisted the capabilities of the human eye and had facilitated a greater understanding of the universe. Yet responses to these new scientific advances often remained tethered to the notions of magic and shadows. When Henry Fox Talbot first discovered the capabilities of photography he wrote:
The most transitory of things, a shadow, the proverbial emblem of all that is fleeting and momentary, may be fettered by the spells of our ‘natural magic,’ and may be fixed for ever in the position which it seemed only destined for a single instant to occupy.William Henry Fox Talbot
The shadow, with its notions of transience, death and memory has continued to provide a potent metaphor for commentators engaging with the chemically and electronically rendered imagery of the modern age.
In a sense, computer programming has replaced tricks of light and darkness in evoking wonderment and crafting illusion. Yet shadow continues to be a persistent spectral presence at the birth and death of visual technologies. In this age of cyberspace, digital communication and CGI, when our existence seems less dependent upon our corporeality and the boundary between truth and fantasy grows ever more faint, today’s media remain haunted by the spirit of shadow.