George A. Smith: Prosthesis for the Eye

Grandma’s Reading Glass
P and R: George A. Smith, UK 1900

As Seen Through a Telescope
P and R: George A. Smith, UK 1900

G.A. Smith‘s Grandma’s Reading Glass (1900) is a film designed to show off the then relatively new technique of the close-up, as a small boy (identified as ‘Willy’ in Smith’s catalogue) examines various objects with a huge magnifying glass – the newspaper, the innards of a pocket-watch, a canary in its cage, his grandmother’s eye, a cat.
The close-ups themselves were simulated by photographing the relevant objects inside a black circular mask fixed in front of the camera lens, which also had the effect of creating a circular image that helped them stand out from the rest of the film.
Grandma’s Reading Glass was one of the first films to cut between medium shot and point-of-view close-up, though the editing is no more ambitious than this – in fact, there is very little narrative to speak of besides the boy looking around for further objects to examine. But at the time it was released, that would in itself have been sufficient novelty to maintain the audience’s interest.
Smith would develop these techniques in the more narrative-based As Seen Through A Telescope, made the same year.”
Michael Brooke (BFI)
BFI Screenonline

Grandma’s Reading Glass merits close attention because it offered a new way of entering into a fictional world by sharing a very particular kind of vicarious visual pleasure. The logic of the narrative is that we can see what the Grandson can see through the reading glass. Magically, as if through the action of a spiritualist medium, we enter into his mind in order to share his vision. The sights revealed by this cinematic illusion are of everyday objects but they all possess a degree of charm and beauty, especially the close-ups of the human eye and the cat’s head. This film renounced the conventions of a theatrical perspective – the fixed view from the stalls – that had been the dominant model for film production up to 1900 and continued to be a feature of Méliès‘ new and longer multi-scene narratives. In its place, it presented a new filmic understanding of space and time, which was designed to reveal a new subjectivity. Grandma’s Reading Glass, in effect, expressed a revolutionary new form of visual representation because of its embrace of multiple perspectives within a comprehensible linear narrative.”
Frank Gray, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors
BFI Screenonline