Persistence of vision is the name of the illusion game in 1835: making the user “fill in” what is not explicitly there yet does somehow exist, if only for a moment, somewhere in the imagination. Or perhaps somewhere more metaphysical. Poe, keenly visual, is investigating the theory of optics at this point. Unfortunately, the few selections presented here cannot do justice to such a rich and hypnotic subject.
Because animated GIFs present the individual images that create the illusion of motion precisely to the hundredths of a second (played back when the GIF loads at 15-24 fps), the action of, say, a phenakistoscope shown on screen is very much smoother than what the original owner could have experienced; every twirl of the hand-held device would have resulted in a unique and unsteady revolution. The images of the boxers in Magia del Phenakistoscope below are deceptively smooth and quite convincing to us, but the imagination would have to compensate for real-world fluctuations during a hand-held “playback.”
Richard Balzer Collection
No student of Poe should go without the pleasure of viewing the Richard Balzer Collection of nineteenth-century illusion generators, which has passed to the Boston Museum of Fine Art since his death in 2017. His son, Matthew Balzer’s, video is part of the "Phantasmagoria" exhibit at the MFA through June 24, 2022.
Colorful and satisfying introduction to the phenakistoscope. (Full-screen playback recommended.)
Film Before Film
Demonstrates the mechanics of the phenakistoscope, zootrope, and praxinoscope, and how to use the implements.
Spinning the paper disc conflates two images, so that the flowers appear to move into the vase. Achieving a smooth effect manually requires some dexterity, much patience over many repetitions, and a certain relaxation of mind into a trance-like suspension of disbelief.