Shadowgraph, or an easier term, hand shadows, is the art of creating shadow images using the hands. Before the internet, television, and electricity, adults and children would use their imagination to create shadow images as a form of entertainment. The performer would position themselves between a light source and a blank surface such as a wall or a white bed sheet. Using their hands and common household items, the performer would cast shadows on the surface.
The farther the hands are from the light, the smaller the shadows appear, while the closer the hands are to the light, the larger the shadows appear. The closer the hands are to the blank surface, the sharper the shadows will appear.
Children would entertain themselves using their hands and fingers to cast images of animals such as birds, dogs, and camels. Some shadow images were easy to make with one hand. One of the simplest is a swan. A more complex shadow would be a face using both hands and a combination of fingers.
With the help of movement, shadows would come to life. Some images can be formed with items attached to the hands and fingers to create shadows that the hands and fingers alone cannot.
Not only was this popular with the children, hand shadow performances were popular with entertainers and magicians at carnivals. Carnies would build a small stage using a shoe box. They would cut a hole in the back or side for the light to shine in. With white tissue paper for a back drop, performers would cut out shapes of dragons and mermaids. The designs, attached to small sticks, would be used to give performances to entertain small crowds.
In most recent years, shadow puppets have grown up to large stage productions that involve more than just hands and fingers. They have become theatrical art performances that combine dance, storytelling, sculpture, and the whole human body.
The talented dancers from Catapult Entertainment, season eight finalist from America’s Got Talent, will perform on stage at Leach Theatre on Monday, April 9. They perform behind a screen to create dancing silhouettes of shapes: a full size elephant, a house with a window including people appearing in the window, and many more recognizable images. All were created using shadowgraphs. The viewer never knows what is coming up next. Each image is more complicated than the next. Packed with hundreds of shape transformations, the show is full of humor, emotion, and engaging stories.
Art Matters is a weekly column sponsored by Leach Theatre, a division of Student Affairs, on the campus of Missouri S&T, and produced by Emily Brickler, Managing Director of the theatre and ten-year veteran teacher with a Masters of Art in Teaching from Webster University.