The Aerial View: Research Fellow Patrick Ellis
“How did we experience the view from above prior to the era of commonplace flight?” asks Patrick Ellis, a research fellow at The Wolfsonian who spent three weeks in April exploring the museum’s materials related to this topic. A doctoral student in Film and Media Studies at University of California, Berkeley, Ellis’s dissertation (working title: Vertigo Effects: Aeroscopics from Panorama to Film) centers on this question, with a focus on the years between 1851 and 1915.
“I’m interested in the mass mediation of the aerial view. The Wolfsonian’s collection in particular is excellent because so much of the material is popular. I drew from diverse holdings that will contribute to every chapter in my dissertation and beyond,” he says.
Once it became clear, in the late nineteenth century, that heavier than air flight was going to be realized, but before it actually came to be, there was much speculation on the future of aviation. Ellis describes the ongoing dialogue as characterized by “skepticism mixed with anticipation.”
During those years, a significant amount of visual material was produced that centered on the aerial view. Ellis says that these representations “were part of the broader societal push to prepare us for flight, to help inoculate us.” Among the works generated were panorama paintings, model cities, and simulated film “rides.” New aerial technologies were often introduced to the public through world’s fairs and expositions, especially in the San Francisco Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915, referred to in period press as the “first aeronautical exposition,” for which The Wolfsonian has substantial holdings.
Commenting on the materials in The Wolfsonian’s collection, Ellis notes that among the most rewarding items was a complete collection of the 1907 British journal Ballooning and Aeronautics. “This was my favorite find here. It’s quite rare, and was published before heavier than air flight became routine. In these pages you can find a lot of supposition about the future of flight,” he says.
Excitement about technology and the view from above are clearly evident in an article of advice on photographing from balloons in that journal: “A modern in hand camera is the most interesting and useful addition to the accessories which an aeronaut can carry aloft. To be able to obtain pictures of the views as seen from a balloon, and place reproductions of them before his friends on the earth, is an accomplishment which has only been possible comparatively recently.”
Ellis’s research at The Wolfsonian also turned up an object that spoke to his particular interest in pre-cinematic optical toys. The Polyorama Panoptique, c. 1851 (pictured), is a miniature, domestic version of a diorama, in which the images on provided cards change when illuminated by a light source. Many of the cards depict bird’s-eye views or world’s fair scenes. “Seeing the transition when the light is introduced is really remarkable,” he says.
During his fellowship, Ellis took some time away from his dissertation research to help organize and speak at a public program produced in conjunction with the museum’s installation The Theaters of S. Charles Lee. The program featured a screening of the silent film 7th Heaven and replicated a 1928 evening at Los Angeles’s Lee-designed Tower Theater.
Ellis is one of three scholars awarded a fellowship for 2013–14 through The Wolfsonian’s Fellowship Program. Inaugurated in 1995, the program has hosted more than seventy scholars from colleges, universities, and other institutions in the United States and many foreign countries. Research conducted during the program has contributed to books, dissertations, articles, exhibitions, university courses, and more.
Captions (click below to enlarge):
Viewer and panels, Polyorama Panoptique, c. 1851
Wood, paper, metal, glass, ink, cloth, paper board
Viewer: 9 x 10 ½ x 9 inches (22.9 x 26.7 x 22.9 centimeters)
Instruction card: 5 ¾ x 7 3/8 inches (14.6 x 18.7 centimeters)
Panels: 7 ½ x 9 5/8 inches (19.1 x 24.4 centimeters)
The Wolfsonian–Florida International University, Miami Beach, Florida,
The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection
Photo: Lynton Gardiner
Design for screen, Airplanes with Clouds and Aerial view of Countryside, c. 1925
Kenneth Stevens MacIntire (1881–1979)
graphite, watercolor, ink and varnish on paper drawing
6 1/2 x 8 1/4 inches, matted (16.5 x 21 centimeters, matted)
The Wolfsonian-Florida International University, Miami Beach, Florida, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection