Cinematic New York

From the Hudson River to Niagara Falls, 1896–1920

  • Katherine E. Manthorne (Autor/in)


Phil Solomon's immersive, high-definition installation American Falls (2010) transformed the Corcoran Gallery of Art's rotunda in Washington, D. C. from April to July 2010 into a cinema-cum-panorama, where viewers were surrounded by three screens upon which moving images of plunging water alternated with key moments from the nation’s past. Considering American Falls as a culmination in the filmic depiction of national scenery, this paper employs it as a springboard to traverse backward in time to explore its roots, and thereby investigates the ways landscape functioned in early movies of the silent era (1896–1926). I argue that nineteenth century American landscape art provided the common ground for early filmmakers in much the same way as an oft-told story provided the familiar narrative necessary for audiences to follow silent movie action. In the beginning, neither cameramen nor audiences knew how to see cinematically, and as they learned the potential of the new medium they relied on the formats and tropes of the old: landscape painting and its popularization in chromolithographs, calendar art, even china patterns. Surveying three key moments of early cinema demonstrates the evolving dialogue between silent cinema and landscape art. Chronologically examining Thomas Edison, Edwin S. Porter, and D. W. Griffith, I explicate my thesis that a century ago these pioneers necessarily adopted canonical American landscape sites as their points of departure, and viewed them through the paradoxical lens of modern technology and nostalgia. Since the heart of America’s nascent film industry - like its Hudson River School - was centered on New York, we too focus there.