Thanks to a generous gift from Sibylle Fraser, Cotsen now has a delightfully mysterious group of magic lantern slides of illustrations from some of the most famous Soviet picture books of the 1920s. No book is reproduced in its entirety, but there are samples from Samuil Marshak ‘s Vladimir Lebedev’s Tsirk [Circus} and Bagazh [Baggage] illustrated by Vladimir Lebedev, Kornei Chukovskii’s Moidodyr [Wash ‘em Clean] illustrated by Yuri Annenkov, published by Raduga, and Chukovskii’s Tarankanishche [Cockroach] illustrated by Vladimir Konashevish, to mention just a few.
The glass lantern slides were produced by photographer Edward van Altena (1873-1968) at his studio on 71-79 West 45th Street in New York City, but there is no hint on the slides for whom he made them. The photographs might have been taken as documentation of a private or institutional collection of 1920s Soviet children’s books, but it seems much more likely they were used for lectures by someone. The superb reproduction of the artwork would have been perfect for educational purposes, and slides were stored in the kind of case sold to lecturers.
Copy stand photography, on the other hand, is not the kind of work usually associated with van Altena, a minor celebrity in the history of photography. Over the course of his long career, which began at age 15, were the song slides, or hand-colored magic lantern slides for sing-along entertainment between films in vaudeville theatres, a market he and his partner John Duer Scott dominated from 59 Pearl Street between 1904 and 1919. Whether the subjects of Scott and van Altena song slides were sentimental or surreal, their production values were superb. The Princeton Graphic Arts Collections holds some wonderful examples.
After the dissolution of Scott and van Altena, the partners went their separate ways. When van Altena moved into the premises at 71-79 45th Street and how long he did business there I was not able to discover. The Soviet picture books he photographed were published during the 1920s, but they could have been shot in the 1930s or even into the 1940s, when glass slide technology was on its way out. He seems to have had plenty of work, judging by the examples held in the archives of the Garden Society of America, Wintherthur, the Yale University Divinity Library, the Eastman Museum, Theodore Roosevelt papers, Brooklyn Historical Society (to mention a few), and for sale on the Internet. The trail goes cold in the 1940s, after which he seems to have disappeared as a professional photographer.
Many thanks to Sibylle Fraser, for this most unusual and intriguing gift to the collection. Perhaps it will inspire a researcher to try and learn more about who was preaching the gospel of the Soviet avant-garde’s great creators of picture books for children.
Sources consulted included Terry Bolton, “Outstanding Colorists of American Magic Lantern Slides, Magic Lantern Gazette, 26:1 (Spring 2014), 3-23, Elizabeth Carlson, “Five Cent Fantasies: Photographic Experimentation in Illustrated Song Slides,” History of Photography, 41:2 (May 2017), 188-203, and Encyclopaedia of the Magic Lantern, co-edited by David Robinson, Stephen Herbert, and Richard Crangle (London: Magic Lantern Society, 2001).