Robert Flaherty’s “Nanook of the North”IntroductionThe term 'documentary' did not come into popular use until the late 1920s and 1930s. It was initially applied to various kinds of 'creative' non-fiction screen practice in the post-First World War, classical cinema era. Originating films in the category have typically included Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), which blurred the line between fact and fiction, various Soviet films of the 1920s such as Dziga Vertov's The Man with the Movie Camera (Chelovek s kinoapparatom, 1929) etc. Yet 'documentary' cinema has roots that lie further back in the reworking of a vital and long-established form that had flourished throughout the second half of the nineteenth century the illustrated lecture.
Early documentarians used the magic lantern to create complex and often sophisticated programmes out of a succession of projected photographic images accompanied by a live narration, with an occasional use of music and sound effects. By the turn of the century, films were gradually replacing slides while inter-titles usurped the function of the lecture; changes that eventually gave rise to the new terminology.
The documentary tradition preceded film and has continued into the era of television and video, thus being redefined in the light of technological innovations, as well as in the context of shifting social and cultural forces. Origins The use of projected images for documentary purposes can be traced back to the mid-seventeenth century, when the Jesuit Andreas Tacquet gave an illustrated lecture about a missionary's trip to China. In the first decades of the nineteenth century, the magic lantern was often used to give audio-visual programmes on science (particularly astronomy), current affairs, travel, and adventure (Hayward, 2000).
The ability to transfer photographic images on to glass and project them with the lantern was a crucial leap forward in documentary practice. Lantern slide images not only achieved a new ontological status but became much smaller and easier to produce. Frederick and William Langenheim, German-born brothers then residing in Philadelphia, achieved this result in 1849 and showed examples of their work at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851. By the mid-1860s the use of these slides in travel lectures had become popular in eastern cities of the United States, with an evening's programme typically focusing on a single foreign country.
In June 1864, for instance, New York audiences could see The Army of the Potomac, an illustrated lecture on the Civil War using photographs taken by Alexander Gardner and Mathew Brady. Although the magic lantern had been used primarily to evoke the mystical or fantastic in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, by the late 1860s it was being used predominantly for documentary purposes and was assigned new names as a result; the 'stereopticon' in the United States and the 'optical lantern' in England (Barnouw, 1974).
These documentary-like illustrated lectures flourished in Western Europe and North America. In the United States, several exhibitors toured the principal cities, giving a series of four or five programmes which changed from year to year. In the last three decades of the nineteenth century, many noteworthy documentary-like programmes were given by adventurers, archaeologists, and explorers. Programmes on the Arctic were particularly popular from 1865 onward, and often displayed an ethnographic bent. Lieutenant Robert Edwin Peary interrupted his efforts to reach the North Pole by presenting travelogue-style lectures in the early and mid-1890s.
Displaying 100 lantern slides in his 1896 lecture, Peary not only recounted his journey from Newfoundland to the Polar ice cap in heroic terms but offered an ethnographic study of the Inuit or 'Esquimaux'.