Alison Griffiths

Borneo women photographed by Carl Lumholtz for film "In Borneo the Land of the Head-Hunters"


Works in Progress

"Nomadic Cinema: A Cultural Geography of the Expedition Film"

A proposed fourth monograph, Nomadic Cinema examines the golden age of expedition filmmaking in the interwar period, focusing on films shot in Borneo, Central Asia, and the American Southwest. Grounded in rigorous archival research the book focuses on both internationally recognized organizations and privately funded anthropological research trips.

Drawing upon the fields of cinema studies, visual anthropology, cultural geography, museum studies, and ecocriticism, the book traces the habits of seeing and writing of leaders of four distinct twentieth century expeditions, some famous and others barely known.

Three questions structure this investigation: What were the conditions of possibility and patterns of exhibition of expedition cinema? How did the films function as anthropological data while also having a use value in scientific organizations, public lectures, trustees’ homes, and commercial theaters? And what can we learn from linking the endeavor of expedition filmmaking to the long tradition of pre-modern travel writing and medieval visual representation?


Carceral Fantasies : Cinema and Prisons in Early Twentieth Century America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016)
A groundbreaking contribution to the study of nontheatrical film exhibition, Carceral Fantasies tells the little-known story of how cinema found a home in the U.S. penitentiary system and how the prison emerged as a setting and narrative trope in modern cinema. Focusing on films shown in prisons before 1935, Alison Griffiths explores the unique experience of viewing cinema while incarcerated and the complex cultural roots of cinematic renderings of prison life.

Griffiths considers a diverse mix of cinematic genres, from early actualities and reenactments of notorious executions to reformist exposés of the 1920s.She connects an early fascination with cinematic images of punishment and execution, especially electrocutions, to the attractions of the nineteenth-century carnival electrical wonder show and Phantasmagoria (a ghost show using magic lantern projections and special effects). Griffiths draws upon convict writing, prison annual reports, and the popular press obsession with prison-house cinema to document the integration of film into existing reformist and educational activities and film's psychic extension of flights of fancy undertaken by inmates in their cells. Combining penal history with visual and film studies and theories surrounding media's sensual effects, Carceral Fantasies illuminates how filmic representations of the penal system enacted ideas about modernity, gender, the body, and the public, shaping both the social experience of cinema and the public's understanding of the modern prison.

Shivers Down Your Spine: Cinema, Museum, and the Immersive View (Columbia, 2008)
From the architectural spectacle of the medieval cathedral and the romantic sublime of the nineteenth-century panorama to the techno-fetishism of today's London Science Museum, humans have gained a deeper understanding of the natural world through highly illusionistic representations that engender new modes of seeing, listening, and thinking. What unites and defines many of these wondrous spaces is an immersive view-an invitation to step inside the virtual world of the image and become a part of its universe, if only for a short time.

Since their inception, museums of science and natural history have mixed education and entertainment, often to incredible, eye-opening effect. Immersive spaces of visual display and modes of exhibition send "shivers" down our spines, engaging the distinct cognitive and embodied mapping skills we bring to spectacular architecture and illusionistic media. They also force us to reconsider traditional models of film spectatorship in the context of a mobile and interactive spectator.

Through a series of detailed historical case studies, Alison Griffiths masterfully explores the uncanny and unforgettable visceral power of the medieval cathedral, the panorama, the planetarium, the IMAX theater, and the science museum. Examining these structures as exemplary spaces of immersion and interactivity, Griffiths reveals the sometimes surprising antecedents of modern media forms, suggesting the spectator's deep-seated desire to become immersed in a virtual world. Shivers Down Your Spine demonstrates how immersive and interactive museum display techniques such as large video displays, reconstructed environments, and touch-screen computer interactives have redefined the museum space, fueling the opposition between public and private, science and spectacle, civic and corporate interests, voice and text, and life and death. In her remarkable study of sensual spaces, Griffiths explains why, for centuries, we keep coming back for more.

Wondrous Difference: Cinema, Anthropology, and Turn-of-the-Century Visual Culture (Columbia, 2002)
The ethical and ideological implications of cross-cultural image-making continue to stir debate among anthropologists, film scholars, and museum professionals. This innovative book focuses on the contested origins of ethnographic film from the late nineteenth century to the 1920s, vividly depicting the dynamic visual culture of the period as it collided with the emerging discipline of anthropology and the new technology of motion pictures. Featuring more than 100 illustrations, the book examines museums of natural history, world's fairs, scientific and popular photography, and the early filmmaking efforts of anthropologists and commercial producers to investigate how cinema came to assume the role of mediator of cultural difference at the beginning of the twentieth century.


“The Carceral Aesthetic: Seeing Prison on Film During the Early Cinema Period,” early Popular Visual Culture Vol. 12, Issue 2 (2014): 174-198
This article examines how actuality and fictional films about prisoners made during the early cinema period construct a carceral imaginary that appropriated visual tropes from the Middle Ages while experimenting with motion picture’s unique signifying properties. The essay constructs a genealogy of prison-set motion pictures made before 1914, a period overlooked in standard prison film histories, starting with actualities of prisoners including The Lock Step (1899) and Female Prisoners: Detroit House of Corrections (1899), and fictional one-reelers Scenes of Convict Life (1905) and Children’s Reformatory (1907). Aspects of prison iconicity explored in this essay include the cell as a penitential but occasionally anarchic space, the lockstep and prison uniform, and the representation of escape. The trick film’s mocking of penal authority via the metamorphoses of convicts’ bodies in When Prison Bars and Fetters are Useless (1909) and the subversion of time in The Impossible Convicts, provides a potentially deeper understanding of prison’s ‘structure of feeling’ than the later prison film. Unencumbered by the generic conventions of the studio system era, early prison films provide a striking vantage point from which to explore prison and prisoner’s paradoxical place within the popular imaginary.

“Tableaux Morts: Execution, Cinema, and Galvanistic Fantasies” Vol. 3, Issue 3 (April 29, 2014)
Tales of punishment, incarceration, torture, and execution have enthralled audiences since time immemorial; even witnessing actual executions was within the realm of the possible up until the dawn of the twentieth century, as death penalties were carried out in public. A rich, macabre visual culture evolved around spectacularized executions: images of barbaric deaths have been recorded in artworks, woodcuts, paintings, draw- ings, photographs, lithographs, and motion pictures. This essay explores how the invention of cinema responded to the longue durée that is visualized executions. But rather than construct a genealogy of execution on film, I instead hone in on a method of execution that is virtually isomorphic with cinema’s invention—electrocution. Coming of age at roughly the same time, electrocution and cinema were exemplars of technological modernity and were shaped by shared histories of popular and scientific display. Thomas Alva Edison was instrumental in the development of both motion pictures and electrocution. Without his expert testimony in the legal appeal of William Kemmler, a case that established electrocution as a replacement for hanging in New York State, the electric chair might have remained a blueprint and not one of the deadliest killing machines in US prison history.

“Sensual Vision: 3-D, Medieval Art, and the Cinematic Imaginary,” Film Criticism, Vol. XXXVII, No. 3 (Spring/Fall 2013): 60-85.
This essay explores a range of evocative connections between contemporary 3-D cinema and art from the Middle Ages. An embodied and sensorially rich spectatorial experience defines both 3-D and medieval objects such as altarpieces, sculptures designed to open to reveal additional objects within, and reliquaries (sculptures of body parts containing fragments of bone or other remains). The art objects and images from both eras caressed the senses, premised on the idea that “faith” in what you saw (or heard) would trigger a heightened engagement. The essay considers three dimensionality in relation to corporeal vision and immersion into the image, 3-D as adornment, and the distinct forms of embodiment and belief in medieval art and contemporary 3-D cinema.

“A Portal to the Outside World: Motion Pictures in the Penitentiary” Film History Vol. 25, No. 4 (2013): 1-35
This essay examines the conditions shaping cinema’s emergence in the early twentieth-century American penitentiary. Cinema entered a prison environment in which the programming of film alongside other popular entertainments, such as lectures, concerts, vaudeville, and musical performances, persisted longer than in the wider society. The essay considers how cinema and other portals to the outside world, such as magazines, books, and newspapers, affected the balance of the senses; the popular press’s fascination with the idea of carceral spectatorship as an alternative to traditional models of a fee-paying audience; and cinema’s role within the “coddling” debate. By the late 1910s, Sing Sing prison, located thirty miles north of New York City, held nightly film screenings and frequently served as a film location for commercial film companies. This essay examines the interlocking institutional, carceral, and imaginative structures that made filmgoing possible for the fifteen hundred inmates in Sing Sing in the early twentieth century.

“The Untrammeled Camera: A Topos of the Ethnographic Expedition Film,” Film History, Vol. 25, No. 1-2 (2013): 95-109.
This essay explores historical, textual, and discursive questions surrounding the overlooked expedition film. Using Carl Lumholtz's 1920 expedition film "Bomeo: In the Land of the Head-Hunter" as a case study, issues of authorship, sponsorship, stylistic tropes (such as the long take), as well as the expedition film's conventionalization in the 1920s, are taken up and discussed.

“The 1920s Museum Sponsored Expedition Film: Beguiling Encounters in All But Forgotten Genre,” Early Popular Visual Culture Vol. 9, Issue 3 (Dec. 2011): 271-92.
Many natural history museums, including the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), enthusiastically adopted the young medium of motion pictures in the form of the sponsored expedition film. This essay examines Camping Among the Indians, shot in the American Southwest in 1927 by Clyde Fisher, AMNH curator (and later Chairman of the AMNH Hayden Planetarium), and Ernest Thompson Seton, wildlife illustrator, children’s book author, and founder of the Woodcraft League (1902) and the Boy Scouts of America (1910). Co-sponsored by the Woodcraft League, Camping Among the Indians serves as a revealing case study in reconstructive film history, and the extant footage and sparse documentation of its exhibition illuminate the unique situation of the museum sponsored exhibition film as a vital, if overlooked, area of ethnographic filmmaking.