Dirt: Big pictures
Slide to the left.
Claire L. Evans on the lost art form of elaborate, pre-PowerPoint “multi-image shows.”
1987, Acropolis Convention Center, Nice. You could almost call the conference room a cathedral, but cathedrals reach toward the heavens, and this room is wide, its horizons more worldly. This is where salespeople gather—here and in identical rooms from Las Vegas to Singapore—to press flesh and make big deals. Big rooms, big deals, big pictures.
Today that means 80 slide projectors, braced together in a grid behind a gargantuan wall of screens, and a sound system strong enough for a rock show. The speakers have to be loud, because the din of the projectors is unbelievable. Imagine 80 slide carousels clacking through 6,400 slides right next to your ear, like a swarm of locusts.
On the other side of the screen, it’s business theater as usual—the global launch of the Saab9000 CD. Glossy images of the brand-new executive sedan are intercut with smiling faces and airbrushed sales figures. The room is washed in chrome, the sales reps in the audience are washed in champagne. At the show’s apex, as two cars drive across the stage surrounded by a flurry of 50 singers and dancers, they go bananas.
This is no living room slideshow. It took a team of a dozen people months to write, shoot, and develop each individual 35mm slide. Animations had to be painted in by hand to create the warm glows and shimmering transitions. A dedicated slide cleaner dusted each frame. Thousands of slides had to be mounted into carousels in the correct configuration. Some ten thousand cues had to be programmed into the show control computers. And computers crash. Bulbs burn out. Projectors jam. When a show like this comes together, it’s miraculous. And like a miracle, it’s rarely repeated.
Thanks for reading Dirt! Subscribe for free.
If you never saw a slide show, you never will. The machines to show them no longer exist. Even if they did, the slides would have faded, the audio tapes oxidized and demagnetized.
So begins the autobiography of Doug Mesney, the Incredible Slidemaker. For nearly thirty years, Mesney was one of the most in-demand slideshow producers in the corporate world, a kingpin of Kodak. His company, Incredible Slidemakers, produced the Saab show, along with hundreds of elaborate shows for splashy product launches and corporate events. He had offices in New York, Stockholm, and Brussels. His clients included car companies, airlines, IKEA, world governments—and, once, the King of Jordan.
Mesney was an artist; his medium the corporate slideshow. Today, product launches and corporate conferences tend towards the austere, echoing Steve Jobs’ minimalist Apple Keynotes. But for twenty glorious years, slides were king. They were bigger, crisper, and less expensive to produce than 16mm film; more colorful and higher-res than video.
Known in the business as “multi-image shows,” these slide presentations were so essential to the corporate world that they supported an entire industry of producers, technical artists, multi-image festivals, and professional associations. At the industry’s peak in the mid-1980s, it employed 20,000 people, and computer companies were springing up in Silicon Valley to produce specialized slide-control computers, like the AVL Eagle.
Back in these glory days, a big multi-image show might cost tens of thousands of dollars to produce. “The complexity was enormous and the costs were unbelievable,” Mesney, now 77 years old, explains, between stints spent writing An Incredible Epic, his eleven-volume autobiography. “But there was no alternative. If you wanted to do a big show and you had a big audience, it was just the cost of doing business.”
Mesney started out as a commercial photographer, shooting stylish spreads for Penthouse and car magazines, before he was turned onto the potential of multi-image by a display at the 1972 New York Boat Show. At the time, his photography business was waning, nicked in the economic downturn of the Saudi oil embargo.When he started programming slide shows as a side hustle, the work was still done on hole-punched paper tape.
The equipment was, to put it mildly, ornery. Mesney tells me horror stories: plugging a 14-projector Clairol show in Chicago into the wrong voltage and blowing all the equipment, losing a third of a World Book Encyclopedia show in a freak car accident on the way to LaGuardia, lugging back-breaking gear across the world. “Porters and skycaps at airports used to drool when they saw me,” he says. “I handed out fifty $100 bills at airports like, get this stuff on the plane.”
As technology evolved, slide producers set aside film and transitioned to video. PowerPoint drove the final nail into the analog coffin in the mid-1990s, although not before cribbing effects and transitions invented by multi-image producers like Mesney. As the industry cratered, obsolete equipment was junked, the slides warehoused or lost. “An entire industry came and went in just over two decades,” Mesney laments. Outside of a dozen-odd shows restored by an enthusiast on YouTube, he’s right—if you never saw a slide show, you never will.
It’s thanks to that YouTube enthusiast that I first came across the lost medium of multi-image shows. Steve Michelson, a former slide producer, has made a retirement hobby out of cleaning slides, debugging old cues, and projecting relics of corporate pageantry in his Maryland garage. Views on most of his videos sit comfortably in the double-digits, but the shows are gorgeous. Bulbs cool and warm, cross-fading images to create warm glows; sequences of slides, chained together, make shuddering animations. The corporatespeak is so inane it’s camp (“smart business is using proven systems,” one soundtrack croons). Manic and glitzy, the shows evoke all the coke-addled hubris of go-go ‘80s business culture. “These things were designed to inspire,” Michelson says.
They also represent a blip in the timeline—a three-point turn where technology took a pause and backed out before heading elsewhere. “Back then computers were fast enough to tell slides what to do, but they weren't fast enough to actually create the images themselves,” Michelson explains. “It took another 10 or 15 years until you could run a show straight from your computer and have the images look worth looking at.”
Arguably, we’re still waiting. — Claire L. Evans
The Dirt: Shining a light on relics of a dead-end in visual culture.
Need more Dirt? Here are some recent staff favorites: