Vanishing picture

The man who invented the motion picture, contrary to widely held opinion, did not do so in France or the US but in Leeds. And yet the legacy of Louis De Prince disappeared – as did the man himself

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The birth of cinema has historically been framed as an industrial event. The defining medium of the 20th century, as commonly understood, was created by businessmen and quickly exploited by corporations with now familiar names on their letterheads – such as Gaumont, Pathé and Edison.

Le Prince was not a company man or an industrialist: he was a painter, photographer and draughtsman

In North America, Thomas Edison himself is considered to have created motion pictures in 1891, by virtue of his Kinetoscope, a peep-show device – essentially a large cabinet with goggles on the top – through which a person could view films several seconds long. By this point in his career, Edison was a world-famous inventor, backed by wealthy financiers including JP Morgan. He worked in a sprawling lab in New Jersey, with a large staff at his disposal. Several companies bore his name, some of them big enough to qualify as public utilities.

In Europe, the French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière are more commonly held to be the real inventors of the movies. Their device, the Cinématographe, gives the medium its name, after all, and their first public screening, in December 1895, is thought to be the first time moving images were successfully projected on a screen for an audience. The Lumières were already magnates, heads of a leading manufacturer of photographic equipment and owners of a large factory in Lyon.

Neither Edison nor the Lumière brothers believed in motion pictures as a medium. They marketed their respective devices as a novelty and predicted the public would quickly lose interest in them. They were wrong, and by the turn of the century there were film producers and studios in multiple countries. The equipment remained expensive and specialised, though, as was the process of distributing the films themselves, and making movies remained the purview of business until the 1970s, when the first home recording equipment came to the market in the form of Super-8 cameras.

The problem with this history of film is that it’s wrong. Neither Edison nor the Lumières made the first films: a Frenchman by the name of Louis Le Prince did, as early as October 1888, three years before Edison premiered his Kinetoscope and a full seven years before the Lumière brothers’ first screening. He did so in Leeds, where he lived for much of his adult life, making the city the first place a motion picture was ever shot.

Le Prince had no outside investors. He was not a company man or an industrialist: he was a painter, photographer and technical draughtsman who had studied optics and chemistry at university but was largely self-taught in his other fields of interest. His team of collaborators counted only three, including his teenage son and a 20-year-old joiner from a Quaker family down the road from Le Prince’s own workshop. And his first film, known as the Roundhay Garden Scene, shows Le Prince’s son and in-laws walking and smiling in the garden of the family home – in other words, it was a home movie.

There is absolutely no disputing this is true. The Roundhay Garden Scene survives, in part, to this day. It can be dated to October 1888 because one of the performers appearing in it died at the end of that month. Le Prince held approved patents for his camera and projector in several countries, including the US, England and France. Those machines also survive, in the collection of the National Media Museum in Bradford. They are recognisable as film equipment, their inner mechanisms fundamentally similar to those of cameras and projectors being used a century later. (In 2015, a group of technicians commissioned by Yorkshire filmmaker David Wilkinson created an exact replica of Louis Le Prince’s camera and were able to film scenes with it.) Dozens of people across three countries gave signed, sworn testaments that they had seen Le Prince successfully project motion pictures onto walls and sheets.

And yet Le Prince is forgotten, relegated to the dubious ranks of men who claimed to have made films before 1891 but have no evidence to show for it. In September 1890, two years after making that first motion picture but before he had held a paying public screening, he boarded a train in France and disappeared – never to be seen again.

Louis Le Prince was born in France in 1841. His father was a friend of Louis Daguerre, one of the inventors of photography, and young Louis remembered visiting Daguerre’s studio as a child – an encounter that gave rise to his own interest in photography. In the late 1860s, while living in Paris, Le Prince met a young Yorkshirewoman, Lizzie Whitley, who was in the city to study sculpture under the celebrated artist Carrier-Belleuse. (One of Lizzie’s studio mates at the time was an apprentice by the name of Auguste Rodin.) Le Prince and Lizzie fell in love, and he followed her back to Leeds, where they married and where he took a position working for her father Joseph Whitley, who owned one of the city’s thriving ironmongers. Here Le Prince learned technical draughting and the basics of mechanical engineering, which would serve him years later as he struggled with his early motion picture prototypes. In 1870, Le Prince returned home to fight in the Franco-Prussian war, during which he found himself confined in the siege of Paris for several long winter weeks. When he returned to England after the war ended, he quit the Whitley firm and opened a school of art with Lizzie, both of them determined to spend more of their lives doing the things they loved.

It was during this period, according to Lizzie, that Le Prince came up with his idea for moving images. The “spark”, as she called it, was lit by a confluence of factors, an example of synchronicity in action. One day, while working at the kiln in his shed studio, Le Prince was trying to choose a photograph to print onto ceramic when the pictures slipped in his hand. One image over the other gave the briefest impression of life. Le Prince’s brain fired: his children had been enjoying magic lantern shows in the evenings, and he wondered if it might be possible to improve on the slides by using photographs in very quick succession to recreate genuine movement. His work as a draughtsman in the iron forge suggested mechanisms – metal belts, gears and reels – by which he might link the photographs together. As a painter, he wondered if he might be able to hand-colour the images too. His time during the siege in Paris, cut off from the outside world and carting the dead and wounded in and out of infirmaries, made him wonder if photographing people as they lived, and sharing those experiences far and wide, might bring people of different nationalities together – a hint of the possible great power of the new medium.

In 1882, the Le Prince family moved to New York City to start a new chapter of their lives. At first they worked as instructors at a school for deaf children, where Le Prince experimented with filming the students, hoping his invention might provide a way to teach sign language or lip reading – a first suggestion of film as an educational tool. Later, Le Prince took a job designing panoramas, huge painted recreations of historical events to be experienced immersively in the round, and this seems to have inspired him to sketch floorplans for a “people’s theatre” in which audiences might watch life-size motion pictures: in other words, a cinema.

Le Prince was obsessed with this new idea. It came at the right time. The race to invent a machine that could capture and replay moving images was one of the great technological quests of the 19th century, and there were several others in the Western world striving to be the first to achieve that goal. The English photographer Eadweard Muybridge, who had taken the first truly instantaneous photographs in the 1870s, was developing new shutters with which to capture the briefest of seconds with clarity. The French physiologist Jules-Etienne Marey had developed a rifle in which he loaded photographic negatives and which he used to take pictures of birds in flight. His compatriot Charles-Emile Reynaud was developing his own motion picture device – though for animated images, not live-action photographs.

Late to this party was Edison, the celebrated inventor of the lightbulb and the phonograph. Edison did not explore motion pictures until 1887, when he met Muybridge after one of the photographer’s lectures. Once his interest was piqued, however, Edison made ground quickly. He had knowledgeable staff – particularly a young and ambitious Scotsman, WKL Dickson, who headed the project for his famous boss – as well as nearly infinite resources. He also had fearsome lawyers, influential publicists, the benefit of friendly treatment from the US Patent Office, and a tendency to chew up and spit out rivals.

Even then, Edison was notorious for “borrowing” ideas from the competition. He was engaged in ugly public combat with the entrepreneur George Westinghouse over the respective merits of alternative and direct currents. He had “improved” on Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone and then declared himself its true original inventor.

Le Prince considered approaching Edison with his idea but, according to his wife, was discouraged from doing so. By whom, no one knows. Soon afterwards Le Prince became secretive and paranoid. Leaving his family in New York, he travelled back to Leeds, ostensibly to work away from any American thieves – Edison, Lizzie suggested, chief among them.

Le Prince stood apart from his contemporary competition in great part due to his vision for the medium of motion pictures. Muybridge and Marey sought to freeze instants of life rather than hold them so they could be stitched back together. Edison considered only whether the invention might make money – his sole criterion for pursuing a project. “He believed that moving pictures would prove more potent than diplomacy in bringing nations into closer touch,” Le Prince’s daughter recalled, “and that as a peace propaganda it was without a rival. What mother who has watched a realistic reproduction by camera of a battlefield in action would see her son become food for cannon in an unnecessary war?”

Lizzie remembered her husband boldly announcing that film would be a great scientific leap forward, a tool against ignorance and superstition that would put an end to “the divine right of kings and much needless priestcraft”.

For at least four years, Le Prince worked full time to realise his ambitions. He rented a workshop at 160 Woodhouse Lane in Leeds, hired a local joiner and mechanic, and sunk all he owned into experiments. Lizzie held down her position as a teacher in New York and supported him with her own pay cheques. In 1888 Le Prince shot his Roundhay Scene, and shortly thereafter another film of traffic crossing Leeds Bridge. Both films were intended as demonstrations of what the camera could do.

He wrote letters to his family in New York, promising to return shortly. In the spring of 1890, he seems to have shown his motion picture devices to the secretary of the Paris Opera, perhaps in search of an exhibition contract. Soon after, Le Prince had Lizzie rent a large historic mansion in uptown Manhattan, to be used as a venue for the premiere of his invention.

Before sailing back to America, Le Prince travelled back to France to see his brother Albert, an architect in Dijon. The visit was a farewell but also financially motivated: Albert owed Le Prince some money out of their shared inheritance. After a weekend in Dijon, Le Prince left his brother and boarded a train back to Paris – from where he would head back to Leeds and then carry on to New York. But he never arrived in Paris. His family never heard from him again. His body was never found.

Eight months after Le Prince’s disappearance, Edison announced his Kinetoscope. Lizzie was shocked to find the device was eerily similar to the one her husband had spent years developing. Whether or not this was a coincidence – inventors, working in parallel without any knowledge of one another, have been known to reach the same conclusions – she became convinced Edison had stolen her husband’s work. As the years passed, and motion pictures renewed Edison’s popularity and enhanced his wealth, she grew certain the famed Wizard of Menlo Park had had a hand in Le Prince’s disappearance.

She was never able to prove it – and Louis Le Prince’s legacy faded away as his physical person had.

The Man Who Invented Motion Pictures: A True Tale of Obsession, Murder and the Movies by Paul Fischer is published by Faber and Faber

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