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Shadowgraphy (performing art)

Shadowgraphy or ombromanie is the art of performing a story or show using images made by hand shadows. It can be called "cinema in silhouette". Performers are titled as a shadowgraphist or shadowgrapher.

The art has declined since the late 19th century when electricity became available to homes because light bulbs and electric lamps do not give off good shadows and because cinema and television were becoming a new form of entertainment. Shadows are greatly defined by candlelight; therefore hand shadows were common in earlier centuries.

The modern art of hand shadows was made popular by the French entertainer Félicien Trewey in the 19th century. He popularized the art by making silhouettes of famous personalities.

Since shadows have existed since the existence of objects obstructing light, it is hard to say when the art was first used by humans for entertainment. It could have been practiced by ancient or later humans, but it probably originated in the Far East. The French entertainer Félicien Trewey was interested in the art of Chinese shadow puppetry called Ombres Chinoises, which means "Chinese shadows". He popularized the art of hand shadows when he developed shadows of famous silhouettes. It then became popular in Europe in the 19th century.

Although the art is popular amongst different kinds of entertainers it seems prominent amongst magicians, because it was popularized by a magician who inspired many other magicians. Félicien Trewey perfected the widely known elephant, bird, and cat hand shadows and created some of his own such as The Volunteer, Robinson Crusoe, The Jockey, The Rope Dancer and more. In 1889, Trewey joined with Alexander Herrmann who most likely learned it from him. David Tobias Bamberg most likely learned it from Alexander who then passed it down to his son Okito (Tobias Leendert Bamberg) who then passed it down to his son Fu Manchu (David Theodore Bamberg). Fu Manchu passed his skill to Marcelo Contento, one of his apprentices, who became famous worldwide for it. Contento died before he could pass it on to his son.

Other magicians who used hand shadows in their act include David Devant, Edward Victor, and the duo Holden and Graham in which Holden was famous for his "Monkey in the Belfry" shadow. The magician well known today in shadowgraphy is the Australian Raymond Crowe whose hand shadow act performed to the song "What a Wonderful World" by Louis Armstrong has become extremely popular, especially on YouTube.

  • Hand Shadows to be Thrown Upon the Wall by Henry Bursill (1859)
  • Hand Shadows - Second Series by Henry Bursill (1860)
  • Home Fun by Cecil H. Bullivant (1910)--contains a chapter on Hand Shadows
  • The Art of Shadowgraphy - How it is Done by Trewey (1920)
  • Hand Shadows: The Complete Art of Shadowgraphy by Lois Nikola (1921)
  • The Art of Hand Shadows by Albert Almoznino (1970)
  • Shadow Tails by Drew Colby (2011)


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