Film History Essentials: Man Walking Around a Corner (1887)

What it’s about:

A man walks around a corner.

Why it’s essential:

This is not the first human to appear in a work we’ve discussed, but he’s the first to appear “out in the world” rather than in the highly-controlled surroundings where Muybridge worked. Beyond that, there isn’t much that I can say definitively about this scene. The man doesn’t even walk around the corner, really. He has already rounded it (if only just) in the first image. I think we can say that he has a beard and a dark head of hair, though he may also be wearing a hat. He’s dressed in a knee-length smock that’s likely occupational. According to information about a possibly related set of photographs, it seems that he may be a mechanic (that would explain the object that seems to be a wheel just at the left edge of the frame). We can get a vague sense of the kinds of buildings we can see, but I can’t tell you anything about what they are, though the main building could plausibly be a garage. This was taken in Paris, and even the exact corner has been identified, but it looks very different after 135 years.

Man Walking Around a Corner was photographed by Louis Le Prince, using a 16-lens camera of his own design (pictured to the right). About 4 of the 16 photographs were not exposed correctly, which accounts for the gaps that appear when they are run in sequence. This, in turn, helps mask what would otherwise be more evident: Since each lens is located in a different position on the camera, this causes each frame to “jump” slightly in comparison to the previous image. This is most noticeable if you slow the video posted below down to 1/4 speed and watch the wall of the building to the far right, behind the main building in the foreground. Notice how it seems to shift, even though the camera remains stationary.

Le Prince was an artist and inventor whose interest in photography began at a very young age, when he spent time in the studio of his father’s friend, Louis Daguerre. That’s “Daguerre” as in “daguerreotype,” the first publicly-available photographic process. Daguerre first developed his process in the 1830s, and the government of France bought it from in exchange for a lifelong pension for him and the son of his deceased partner. The French government then proceeded to widely publicize the process for free, as their country’s gift to the world, and photography soon went mainstream. To the left you’ll see the earliest known photograph of a person, taken by Daguerre in 1838. There are at least 2, and possibly as many as 4, people appearing in this picture. The long exposure time necessary for this image meant that most of the passing traffic didn’t appear, but a few bystanders were stationary enough to do so. The most obvious is the man in the lower-right corner, whose decision to pause and have his boots polished on the corner that morning immortalized him in a way that he likely never learned about.

Meanwhile, Man Walking Around a Corner is more important for what it isn’t than for it is: It isn’t a filmed moving image. Like much of what we’ve discussed before, it’s yet another sequence of photographs that can be used to simulate a moving image. But for Le Prince, although it failed to entirely produce the desired effect, it represented a successful step closer to his goal of producing a genuine moving image . . . a goal that was about to be realized.

Why you should see it:

By itself, this brief work (so brief, in fact, that you’d miss it entirely with a slow blink), may not seem terribly interesting. It does raise interesting questions in my mind, about the man who was in it and what he knew or did not know about the images being taken. Did Le Prince direct him, or were these images taken unannounced? The subject seems to be looking directly at the camera, and continues looking at it as he walks across the frame. What did he know about this strange device that Le Prince was aiming him and its capabilities? Speculation aside, though, Man Walking Around a Corner is really most interesting as part of Le Prince’s larger story, which (as we will soon see) is both momentous and mysterious.

~ by Jared on January 9, 2023.

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