Film History Essentials: Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge (1888)

What it’s about:

Filmed from a nearby building, street and foot traffic are seen coming and going across the Leeds Bridge. Several coaches and wagons pass each other on the road. A man crosses over in front of a heavily-laden cart and behind a smaller carriage. A number of people move along the sidewalks to either side of the roadway.

Why it’s essential:

Aside from the Roundhay Garden Scene, almost no other films taken by Louis Le Prince on his single-lens camera survive (if there were any more to begin with, which is unknown). But this one is pretty special. As far as I know, this is the earliest moving image that captures an unstaged look at people just living their lives out in the world. Candid filming of people in the street would become quite commonplace as cinema continued to develop, but this is the oldest glimpse we have of a street scene . . . And it’s not New York, or Paris, or even London, as one might expect. It’s in Leeds, because that’s just where Le Prince, a Frenchman who later took dual French and American citizenship, happened to be living and working at the time.

The significance of this is, at least, not lost on Leeds. Le Prince is commemorated in several ways around the city, including with a small blue plaque on the Leeds Bridge (pictured at right), in honor of this film. It’s inaccurate to say that he was in any way influential on the developing art or technologies of cinema . . . only that he should have been. His inventions and his films were developed completely out of the public eye, and would have been lost to history entirely if not for the later efforts of his family to see him recognized for his achievements. In additional to these few scraps of film, some of his cameras survived. It is believed that he had developed and tested a projector, but he never patented it, and only some drawings of possible designs remain. Really, it’s incredible that we have any of his work at all.

Why you should see it:

For as much as it captures within the frame, Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge is tantalizingly brief and full of details that are difficult to make out. If you want to get a good look, you’ll need to pause it or play it on a loop. Even then, we can only tell so much. My eye is particularly drawn to the man and child (father and son?) walking together in the closest corner of the frame. Does it seem that the man is hurrying the child along just a bit? I think his left arm might be around the child’s shoulder or at least behind his back. The man turns and his right arm comes up as the clip ends. Is he tipping his hat to someone, or scolding the child? I could spend hours squinting at the margins of the frame and wondering.

Just like the blurred shadows we can just make out as people in Daguerre’s 1838 photograph, the people on this street likely lived and died never knowing that, whatever brought them to this precise point on the Leeds Bridge at just this moment in late October of 1888, their presence there was forever frozen in time.


~ by Jared on January 12, 2023.

One Response to “Film History Essentials: Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge (1888)”

  1. […] they did that, too. And though they weren’t the first to do it (that would probably be Louis Le Prince), they coined the term “Actualité” (or, “actuality”) to describe this […]


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