Magic Lantern Man

By Bekah Wright, photo by Ethan Pines

Erkki Huhtamo finds a light worth keeping alive in the preservation of magic lanterns.

What do the Berlin Film Festival, a flea market and an old toy have in common? Each of them contributed to the discovery of a brand-new field of study: media archaeology.

It all started in the 1980s, when Erkki Huhtamo, then a recent graduate of Finland’s University of Turku, was on assignment as a film critic at the Berlin Film Festival. As he was perusing a Berlin flea market while on a break, something caught his eye: a toy magic lantern. Huhtamo immediately recognized it as a later version of the earliest forms of picture projectors, invented around 1650.

“Even though I understood it was a very simple, common device, it felt like discovering an astonishing treasure — a magic, wonderful object,” says Huhtamo, who realized he’d found his true calling.

The discovery of that magic lantern changed the Finland native’s life, prompting him to redirect his career path from arts and cultural historian to pioneer of the field of media archaeology. In 1999, Huhtamo joined the faculty at UCLA, where he is now a professor in the departments of Design Media Arts and Film, Television and Digital Media.

Huhtamo has devoted much of the last 30 years to treasure hunting. “Finding historical, moving-image devices involves traveling, peeking into antique stores and cultivating connections with collectors and dealers who understand what these devices are,” he says of these quests, which are vital to keeping historic media forms from becoming obsolete.

Such a venture recently took Huhtamo and a USC colleague to a demolition-tagged warehouse in nearby Inglewood, where they rescued the life’s work of virtual reality pioneer/Sensorama Simulator inventor Morton Heilig. A separate exploration of a warehouse in Belgium turned up a complete 19th-century, multimedia spectacle — the mechanical theater. “It’s an astounding treasure trove for reconstructing a completely unknown part of media history,” Huhtamo says. That particular discovery resulted in a years-long collaboration with Jean Paul Favand, operator of the Musée des Arts Forains in Paris, where the theater is preserved.

At UCLA, Huhtamo’s office in the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Center contains a veritable time capsule of moving-image technology. No signs restrict photography or touching; instead, the professor urges students and visitors to get hands-on. His mission: to help others understand these relics.

There’s another secret motivation behind encouraging this sort of access. In his research, Huhtamo is looking to create dialogues between historical optical media and modern-day technology. “Things we identify with the early 21st century are often part of a broader historical perspective spanning 600 years,” he says. “For example, zoetropes — optical toys of the 19th century — can be connected to current, interactive media devices. By taking historical inventions into account, we gain a deeper understanding of present-day devices.”

The last decade has seen media archaeology gaining steady interest. Knowing that it would be impossible to place rare antiquities into the hands of the masses, Huhtamo has penned books such as Illusions in Motion: Media Archaeology of the Moving Panorama and Related Spectacles (MIT Press, 2013); performed shows at theaters like downtown Los Angeles’ Velaslavasay Panorama; and developed a YouTube series with his undergraduate students called Professor Huhtamo’s Cabinet of Media Archaeology. His personal collection has also been exhibited at the UCLA Arts Library and at the Hammer Museum.

It’s Huhtamo’s wish to explore the imaginary dimensions of these relics. “I want to know how people have felt — their fantasies, hopes, ideas and disappointments — when using these devices,” he says. “Underneath known elements of the media are many things that are completely unknown, waiting to be discovered. And when these discoveries happen, they have the potential to change our way of understanding the whole big picture of media culture.”


Originally published at magazine.ucla.edu.