Documentary’s longue durée: Beginnings, formations, genealogies

Author(s): Musser, Charles


We have tended to think of the documentary as emerging in the early 1920s within the framework of cinema. Yet the documentary tradition possesses a much longer historical trajectory, beginning with public lectures that were illustrated with models and scientific experiments. Appearing in the English-speaking colonies of North America as early as the 1730s, these were a crucial component of the American Enlightenment. The key term was ‘lecture’. Religious groups had used the church-based lecture to communicate the truth of God using the bible as the basis for understanding the world. Appearing in secular venues, these public presentations offered new kinds of truths determined through observation, science, reason and analysis. Creating a new dispositif, they used an increasingly diverse array of illustrative materials – models, charts, demonstrations, paintings, panoramas, reenactments, quotations from literary or musical sources, and even very occasional lantern slides. The term ‘illustrated lecture’ emerged gradually in the 1840s but went through a radical redefinition in the 1870s as the mode merged with the popular but distinct stereopticon exhibition that used photographic lantern slides. By the 1890s and 1900s these illustrated lectures gradually incorporated motion pictures, until many only showed films. When the lecture was replaced by intertitles in the late 1910s, the label ‘illustrated lecture’ became anachronistic and the term ‘documentary’ eventually filled the void.

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Preferred Citation
Musser, Charles: Documentary’s longue durée: Beginnings, formations, genealogies. In: NECSUS_European Journal of Media Studies, Jg. 9 (2020), Nr. 2, S. 21-50. DOI:
 author = {Musser, Charles},
 title = {Documentary’s longue durée: Beginnings, formations, genealogies},
 year = 2020,
 doi = "\url{}",
 volume = 9,
 address = {Amsterdam},
 journal = {NECSUS_European Journal of Media Studies},
 number = 2,
 pages = {21--50},
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