Museum of Modern Art, MOMA, New York


Discover the history and development of film, a merging of science, technology, business, and art, and one of the most widely experienced mediums.

The first motion pictures flickered to life in Thomas Alva Edison’s New Jersey laboratory in the early 1890s. Within two decades, cinemas had sprouted across North America and Europe (with much of the rest of the world soon to follow), their seats packed daily with audiences consuming melodramas, comedies, newsreels, and animation.

Then, in 1927, sound came to the big screen. For the first time, audiences heard actors’ voices and thrilled to the new dimension this brought to the experience. From cumbersome beginnings, sound technology—along with camera, film, and projection technology—steadily improved and films became increasingly sophisticated. It is now hard to imagine a time when films were not central to popular culture.

But what is film? Theories about this medium abound: it is a collaborative art; mass entertainment; a form of language and communication, which can be both constructive and destructive; a cultural document that reflects society.

On a technical level, a film is a series of still photographic images shown in rapid succession to create the illusion of seamless motion. Anyone who has gone to the movies, however, knows that a great film can transport us well beyond the science that makes it possible. Unless the filmmaker effectively breaks film’s illusion (and varied attempts have been made to do just that), the wholeness of the world that a filmmaker can create is deeply affecting. Iris Barry, who laid the foundations for MoMA’s Film department and film studies, was a tireless champion of the medium, which she saw as humanizing:

“The cinema helps us to live complete lives, in imagination if not in fact. And I cannot help thinking that knowing is the same thing as sympathizing.”

Related Artists: Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel, Joseph Cornell, Alan Crosland, Maya Deren, W. K. L. Dickson, William Heise, Walt Disney, Ub Iwerks, David Wark Griffith, Barbara Kopple, Fernand Léger, Louis Lumière, Bill Morrison, Edwin S. Porter, Yvonne Rainer, Leni Riefenstahl, Murray Roth, Jack Smith, Paul Strand, Charles Sheeler.

Credits MomaLearning

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