Louis Le Prince – moving image pioneer – 1841 to 1890

I suspect that most of the Friends are familiar with this C19th inventor who, in 1888, produced what is the earliest surviving example of a strip of moving image; scenes shot on a single lens camera of people in a Roundhay garden and then of people and traffic on Leeds Bridge. The second Leeds International Film Festival was, in his centenary year, a celebration of Le Prince’s achievement. And Blue Plaques commemorate his pioneer work on Leeds Bridge and the site of his workshop on Woodhouse Lane. Now a new study has appeared, ‘The Man Who Invented Motion Pictures’ by Paul Fischer, published by Simon & Schuster this month, in 2022, [ ‘The Genius, Secrecy and Disappearance of Louis Le Prince’]. Helpfully, a condensed version of the publication was premiered by BBC’s Radio 4’s ‘Book of the Week’; five episodes of 15 minutes each and available on BBC Sounds.

The book adds to the available studies of this important pioneer of what became cinema. There is Christopher Rawlence’s ‘The Missing Reel’ [Collins 1990): there is Rawlence’s documentary dramatisation of the book, made for Channel 4 in 1990, but not apparently available: David Wilkinson’s 2015 The First Film, more an argument for Le Prince’s recognition that a documentary [available on MUBI]: a detailed Wikipedia page links and detailed references: archive material at Leeds Industrial Museum and at Bradford’s National Media Museum Insight collection: interesting discussion of Prince’s achievement on a blog devoted to William Friese-Greene: and the Louis Prince Leeds Trail. YouTube has transfers of Le Prince’s moving images and a number of short video pieces on him; some have debatable claims.

The title is slightly over the top. The 1880s was a time when a number of pioneers were experimenting with developing photographic technology into a format for moving images. The author does detail the way that Le Prince worked at developing camera and projector for moving images. His descriptions in the BBC extracts are clear and understandable. However, all that survives are examples of what Le Prince filmed and one of his model cameras. As Fischer points out these are the earliest surviving examples of projectable moving images. However, there is no clear evidence that Le Prince successfully projected these. And after his death, when his family attempted to prove his prior claim to the patents of Thomas Edison, they failed; partly because what Le Prince patented did not offer enough detail.

The surviving camera, held at the National Media Museum, shows that Le Prince had successfully developed a shutter mechanism for intermittent display. This is illustrated on the ‘Race to Cinema’ website. The information regarding frame rates is also incomplete; generally this needs a minimum of 14 fps to achieve the appearance of motion. Le Prince had to work with paper strips for the camera and glass plates for the projector; the more effective material of celluloid was then still in development. W. C. Dickson, working for Thomas Edison, was able to use the George Eastman celluloid and also devised sprocket holes to stabilise the intermittent motion. Curiously his employer, Edison, did not share Le Prince’s realisation that a projection to multiple people in an audience as the most effective way to present the new moving images. It was the Lumière Brothers, incorporating Dickson’s contribution, into a combined camera/projector that provided the basic technology of what became known as cinema.

replica-shutter

Replica Shutter 

I have not had an opportunity to read the full volume so my evaluation is based on what was provided in the BBC’s condensed version. Fischer appears to have relied extensively on the memoirs and testimonies of Le Prince’s family members. And he seems to emphasise those aspects that support the title of the book. Louis Le Prince’s career ended in 1890 with an unexplained disappearance. Christopher Rawlence deals with several attempted explanations; also featured on the Wikipedia page. Fischer addresses two of these but, apparently, does not mention one more recent discovery which is photographic evidence of a drowned man for the time who has some similarity to Le Prince.

I am looking forward to checking out the complete book. I tend to agree with the comment of Ian Christie in regard to similar claims for William-Friese Greene; that the new technology and medium was the result of a number of different inventors rather than attributable to a single individual.

Meanwhile, the five episodes on BBC Sounds are full of interest and do provide a clear and fascinating account of this local pioneer of film. Happily for 2022 he is a inhabitant of the world rather than just Britain; born in France and active in that country, Britain and the United States of America. All three countries were important sites of pioneering in the foremost medium of the C20th.

Note, Paul Fischer will be interviewed by Irfan Shah [co-writer of The First Film] at Leeds Central Library on April 28th, 7 to 8 p.m. The Event is almost fully booked.

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