One of them had dared to lift the burning branch severed by a lightning bolt, had carried it to the nearby cave, heart beating, and had put it down. Anxiously and hesitating the others came slowly closer and gathered with wide-eyed wonder around the warming fire. But when one of them discovered the flickering shadows on the rock face behind, he was deeply frightened – and all the others along with him. Instantly they fled into the night to hide out there in the familiar darkness.
This could have been the story of man’s first encounter with shadows other than those created by the sun. And his awe was deep-seated, for it took many thousands of years before he dared to further explore these frightening shapes.
The origin of the conscious play with shadows is lost in the dark. Legend has it that its birthplace was the court of a Chinese Emperor whose minister presented him with the silhouette of his beloved wife in the form of a shadow figure. Indeed the first documents on the use of light and shapes have been found in China.
Spreading out on twisted paths, the shadow theatre reached Europe during the late 17th century. A flame nourished by wax or oil and wavering around the wick was used as the source of light. Its flickering made the shadows twist and dance and its small size produced only vague contours. In order to create a steady and distinct shadow the player had to guide his figures close to the screen. Two important facts regarding the shadow still remained to be discovered and up until then its true beauty remained hidden.
The first of those discoveries occurred on October 21, 1878. This was the day when the shadows lost their restlessness. Thomas Alfa Edison was the man who managed to tame them. After more than a thousand experiments he guided the electric current through a filament of carbonised cotton which glowed for several hours. Finally, the first steadily radiating source of artificial light brightened the small shed behind his house – and the light bulb was invented.
From that time on light was no longer produced by an open flame, flickering and wavering, but by a steadily glowing filament that was heated up by electricity. Within a few years, Edison’s invention conquered the world, and the wavering dark shapes in the houses, on the walls and in the streets became quiet. The shadow was tamed. Nowhere in nature had such steady shadows ever existed. No shadow had ever been motionless, not even the shadows created by the sun!
For the shadow theatre, however, this still required the traditional play in front of a screen. Even though the shadow had become steady, its outline became blurred whenever the shape was removed too far away from the canvas. Edison’s glowing filament was still too large to create distinct shadows, and the next invention that revolutionised the shadow play was almost a hundred years away in the future.
It was prepared, however, in the laboratory of General Electric in the 1950s: when trying to develop a small light with high luminous intensity for passenger aircraft the researchers first experimented with stronger currents. When this failed, they tried changing the air mixture in the bulb – and met with success! By adding halogens it became possible to heat up the filament and to make it glow a lot brighter. Thus, the filament could be shortened and the radiating surface could be concentrated into a small point.
And that was it: illuminated by this point of light the shadows showed up clearly and with distinct outlines for the first time. Now the shadow player could start to move around with his figures or his body, he was no longer forced to stay in front of the screen. Finally he even approached the light and took hold of it. This changed everything for now the player started to take over the space in front of the screen.
And another extraordinary phenomenon arose: the moving light allows the player to create shadows that seem three-dimensional, and thus perspective emerges. The light guided by hand turns, as it were, into the eye of a camera watching the player.
This is where my work begins.