Skip to 0 minutes and 4 secondsEarly film, because it's capturing things sometimes for the first time, because it's got a degree of novelty, and because the camera can go almost anywhere, present for the first time scenes that people have never seen, often. It suddenly is able to bring this bewildering array of attractions to your local town hall, wherever it might be screened. Early film catalogues are full of scenes in Paris, at the Paris Exposition of 1900, perhaps. People wanted to see places that had a strong existing appeal; the pyramids of Cairo.

Skip to 0 minutes and 34 secondsThey wanted to see the skyscrapers of New York, they wanted to see what the Ganges looked like, because there were lots of people in the British Imperial world who were working overseas, a lot, in this huge Empire that really was on every continent, pretty much. They wanted to see what was going on in these places that they were hearing about all the time. Then there were the great events, of course; things like wars and conflicts. It was very important to see what was going on, and even if you couldn't quite see things like fighting in battles, at least you could see the environment in which these conflicts were taking place.

Skip to 1 minute and 28 secondsAt the same time, you're seeing cameramen also capturing quite local scenes, or scenes of London, which would sometimes be brought out to the colonies, because of course, on the other hand, those scenes are really attractive to people overseas, as well. So, there's all kinds of patterns of exchange in terms of what's happening with travel, and the sorts of films which can be captured and then shown. But that's just one genre; the travel genre.

Armchair travel

In this video, Bryony Dixon and Joe Kember discuss the popular and enduring travel genre.

Impressively, almost right from the start, companies sent cameramen all over the world to record exotic scenes and significant events which would have appealed to audiences back home. At a time when overseas travel was beyond the reach of most people (aside from the necessity of war), it is not difficult to imagine why these images were so impactful. They became a key ingredient of most film programmes and for one writer they offered an appealing future for the moving picture:

“In the future, we may look for further developments of this interesting business […] The latest is the promise of a kind of trip around the world in an arm chair. A photographer has been despatched from London, with the necessary instructions, to Egypt for the purpose of obtaining a continuous series of scenes on the way from Cairo to Khartoum. One thousand miles of the journey will be made by water, and the remainder by train […] In the coming summer, the idea will further extended, when picturesque portions of Canada will be photographed.”

(The Showman, 17 January 1902)

Like many early forms of cinema, these travel films (or travelogues as they later became) emerged from pre-existing visual entertainments such as magic lantern shows. Presented in the form of travelling lectures where a performer would recount their foreign adventures with illustrated slides and moving images, they were popular and often copied. An interesting legacy of this background is the attempt by early films to also capture some form of movement in every scene - either with the camera itself in motion (as we have seen with phantom rides) or through its subject such as moving water or a view on to a busy street. View the film Horse-Drawn Traffic Viewed from Elevated Position (1898) to see an example of this. The password to view this film is: bfi-LPC:IVF

Distribution catalogues, which advertised these films to exhibitors, repeatedly emphasise four key elements: movement; the picturesque; the exotic; or conversely, the familiar. Panorama of Calcutta, India, From the River Ganges (1899) (which you can see in this video) already embodies many of these themes, being a single take from a moving vessel that captures the ‘foreign’ activities of locals and pilgrims on the riverbank.

Can you think of any contemporary examples of a travelogue or travel film? Please share your ideas below.

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This video is from the free online course:

The Living Picture Craze: An Introduction to Victorian Film

The British Film Institute (BFI)

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