I am currently working on my dissertation, which historicizes the cultural influences that shaped early motion picture lens design from the late 19th century to the 1920s. The project uses motion picture lenses as a point of intersection to better understand the relationship between cinema and wider developments in the field of optics. Focusing on four significant early lens producers in France, England, Germany and the United States ̶ Zeiss, E. Krauss, Bausch & Lomb, and Taylor, Taylor & Hobson ̶ this dissertation describes how lens design shifted from the goal of reducing visual distortion to an emphasis on rapid capture. More than just a tool, lenses were part of an emerging social belief that technology could arrest and illuminate a world beyond direct human perception. Cinema, in turn, would influence how optical design valued that perception in terms of fidelity, speed, and motion. Bringing together archival research, optical scholarship, film history, and visual theory, I situate lenses in broader cultural ideologies to make sense of why lens design became characterized by the management of visual space rather than its capture.
This dissertation uses archival research to historicize technological discourse and optical industrialization in the context of film culture. I consider a number of early trade journals such as American Cinematographer, The Journal for the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, La Nature, and Motion Picture News. The project also involves research on materials from the Cooke archive in Pennsylvania and the Bausch + Lomb archive in Rochester, NY. In examining primary sources from the approach of cultural history, I reject technological determinist approaches to the history of technology while nonetheless highlighting the important role that lens development has played in shaping film texts and early visual culture.