During the first film screenings in the 1890s, viewers marveled at moving images that had an unprecedented power to transport them to faraway places in an instant. At first, these shorts – which included glimpses of everything from Niagara Falls to elephants in India – had no narrative structure. Audiences flocked to theatres simply for the novel experience of seeing people and places, some familiar and others deeply strange, rendered lifelike and immediate before their eyes.

As the film curator Dave Kehr explains in this video from New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the images were hardly the grainy and frantically paced footage that has become synonymous with ‘old film’ today. Rather, viewed in their original form on large screens and prior to decades of degradation, these movies were vivid and realistic. In particular, early 68mm film, which was less practical than 35mm film and thus used less frequently, delivered startlingly lifelike impressions of distant realities to early moviegoers.

The IMAX of the 1890s | HOW TO SEE the First Movies
“We live in an environment where there are moving images constantly around us. But in 1897, this was startling and new and completely revolutionary. It was a different way of looking at the world.”
In 1939, MoMA acquired a treasure of thirty-six reels of 68mm nitrate prints and negatives made in cinema’s first years. Everything that survived of the Biograph film company lives on those reels, including a rare bit of moving image footage of Queen Victoria.
For the latest edition of How to See, we visited MoMA’s film archives in Hamlin, Pennsylvania to learn more about the incredible quality and clarity of this newly discovered nineteenth-century movie, and the efforts archivists make to preserve such irreplaceable snapshots of history. Curator Dave Kehr joins the discussion to help us look at the early film with the same awe-inspired, expanded view of the world of its first audiences.

Kehr says:

“When [these early movies] projected at the proper speed, with a good, bright lens, from a good print, you’re gonna see some pretty startling and very beautiful results.”

London United Electric Tramways, Opening Ceremonies (1901)
London United Electric Tramways, Opening Ceremonies (1901)

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