In the late 1700s and early 1800s a new form of interactive media was invented. Considered lowbrow at the time, it was the 3D movie of its day, a fully engaging visual experience for the masses, known as panoramic paintings.
Generally displayed either in a large circular room, and surrounding the viewer, or occasionally stretched across two rollers like a ribbon and cranked across them to create a moving landscape for the audience, they were wildly popular in their day. Good panorama painters, such as John Banvard (who at one point painted a half a mile long panorama the longest in the world at the time), were made rich and famous. But with the advent of photography, optical toys and later film, panorama paintings all but disappeared, with most of the world forgetting they and their creators ever even existed.
Taking a cue from these popular panoramic paintings, the Velaslavasay Panorama in Los Angelos is a curious throwback to this old form media. Here, visitors are engaged once again in a fully immersive, 360-degree representation of landscape painting, complete with lighting and sound.
The current exhibition, Effulgence of the North, is an arctic landscape created by Sara Velas, an artist and Los Angeles native who founded The Velaslavasay Panorama in 2001. Effulgence is a rare, contemporary re-production of an otherwise outdated medium, exhibited in a traditional rotunda which features a spiral staircase that allows viewers to enter from the center of the cylindrical room.
A subtle 35-minute soundtrack and light show accompanies the painting and three-dimensional foreground, further adding to a "complete sensory phenomenon" similar to the panoramic spectacles of the past which also often included sound and mood lighting.
Eventually, the rise of the motion picture industry aided in the demise of the panorama as an art form. As such, The Velaslavasay Panorama occupies a somewhat ironic location in an old 1920s silent film theater and only draws more attention to how technology has drastically changed our visual experiences.
The old Union Theater, which once served as a tile layers' union headquarters in the 1970s, is still used by The Velaslavasay Panorama Enthusiasts Society today. In line with the "magnetic showmanship and spectacle" of this era in media and Los Angeles culture, past events have featured Alpine yodelers, esoteric instruments and automata. The front desk even provides sensational pamphlets, such as one on The Alabaster Isle of Penglai, a garden behind the theater which is home to pet bunnies and carnivorous plants.
We explored the Panorama on Obscura Day - March 20th, 2010. Photos, stories and more here