Life model magic lantern slides

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There is a long tradition of telling stories via a series of still images with text for each picture and this format has been used for hundreds of years in magic lantern shows. One particular form is known as ‘life model’ slide sets, so named because the manufacturing process used real people, rather than paintings or drawings, photographed in a succession of poses to create a play. In Britain, the heyday of the genre was the last twenty years of the 19th century. Before that, photographic slides were expensive to produce and, in the early years of the 20th century, cinema made life model slides redundant.

There were two main British manufacturers of life model slides, Bamforth’s of Holmfirth in Yorkshire and York and Son in London. Bamforth’s is still a recognised name, as they went on to produce postcards, including the saucy seaside postcards of the 1960s, familiar to all Brits of a certain age.

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The photographs for life model sets were created in a studio with a painted backdrop and a few simple props and actors suitably posed for one scene, then another and so on. Interestingly, Bamforth’s used volunteers from the village of Holmfirth rather than professional actors. The slides were sold with a printed ‘reading’ (script) that was read to the audience as the slides were shown, thereby providing the narrative.

Sets might contain as few as six or as many as sixty slides and the most common theme was morality ….. the evils of drink, the Christian message, social issues such as poverty or the virtue of good deeds. The three slides shown are from a set of six called ‘The Signal Box’. It is a story about the dangers of railwaymen working long hours and making fatal errors due to tiredness. Unusually for a life model set, this one has a happy ending.

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Buyers’ tip – Try to buy complete sets (the slides are numbered consecutively), in good condition, with the reading and, if possible, a tinted version. Slides made by Bamforth’s usually have a printed paper strip at the bottom that says ‘From life models. Copyright’. York’s slides have a little triangular logo top left, which is a ‘Y’ with a snake wrapped around it. The Magic Lantern Society has a huge library of readings available for members to download. Short sets of up to twelve slides are much better to show to an audience than long ones, which can take forever to tell a simple tale (well it will seem like it to the audience). If you’re giving a show, you might want to tweak the reading to shorten the time that each slide is on the screen. Victorian audiences had much longer attention spans than modern ones!

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