Film History Essentials: Le Débarquement du Congrès de Photographie à Lyon (1895)

(English: The Photographical Congress Arrives in Lyon)

What it’s about:

A group of passengers attending a gathering of photographers walk off of the boat that has brought them to their destination. Most hurry past the cinematograph without acknowledging it, but a few seem to take notice.

Why it’s essential:

The Lumière brothers’ inaugural motion picture program of 10 films was:

French TitleEnglish TitleLength
La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à LyonWorkers Leaving the Lumière Factory0:46
La VoltigeHorse Trick Riders0:46
La Pêche aux Poissons RougesFishing for Goldfish0:42
Le Débarquement du Congrès de Photographie à LyonThe Photographical Congress Arrives in Lyon0:48
Les ForgeronsThe Blacksmith0:49
L’Arroseur ArroséThe Sprinkler Sprinkled0:49
Repas de BébéBaby’s Meal0:41
Le Saut à la CouvertureJumping the Blanket0:41
Place des Cordeliers à LyonCordeliers’ Square in Lyon0:44
La MerThe Sea0:38

Most of these films could be classified, in one way or another, as “actualities” (including one that is reminiscent of a popular Reynaud animation that was still playing across town). Then there are a few that are filmed performances such as we’ve seen before, plus one that seems like a direct rip-off of probably inspired by Dickson’s Blacksmith Scene. However, there are a few besides the opening film that are worth discussing at greater length. One is the fourth film on the program: Le Débarquement du Congrès de Photographie à Lyon.

On June 11, 1895, the Société Française de Photographie (French Photographic Society, which still exists today) gathered for their annual congress. That year it was held in Neuville-sur-Saône (a small commune in Lyon), and you can clearly see the Neuville Suspension Bridge behind them in the film. The bridge stood for over 100 years on the Saône river before being demolished in 1934. Established in 1854, the society achieved such prestige that, in 1892, it was recognized by the French government as a public utility, so it is no exaggeration to say that this was a gathering of many of the most important figures in photography in the world at that time.

In fact, two of those figures should be familiar. Though I can’t definitively identify them in the film, both apparently appear in it. In 1895, the president of the society was Étienne-Jules Marey, one of the most important figures in chronophotography. Also accompanying the group was the previous president, Jules Janssen (see right), whose “Janssen revolver” captured the transit of Venus in 1874, and later inspired Marey’s own “chronophotographic gun.” At about 0:02 in the film, you can see an older, bearded man, all in black with a bowler hat, and carrying a number of different bags as he debarks. I believe this is Janssen, but I’m not sure where Marey appears.

Meanwhile, Louis Lumière was there to capture the moment in order to pull off a stunning proof-of-concept stunt: After filming the congress arriving by boat, the result was developed and then shown at the close of the congress the following day, June 12. It’s difficult to imagine a gathering better suited to appreciating the significance of what they were seeing, and it was the earliest illustration of a very specific capability that the Lumière brothers invention had. Namely, unlike Edison’s kinetograph, the Lumière cinematograph could go out into the world and capture significant, and even newsworthy events as they happened. They could then rapidly put those events before an audience in a way that made the audience feel that they had actually been there to witness what transpired. (Of course, this audience was actually there.)

I don’t know how the congress reacted to the film, or whether any of them was prescient enough to really grasp what they were seeing. But it’s at least possible someone realized that, while the novelty of simply seeing a picture move couldn’t last, the potential for motion pictures to disseminate news could (and of course did) have an enormous impact on the world of the future. I would argue that future in some ways begins with this film.

Why you should see it:

It’s no surprise to see so many of the passengers carrying photographic equipment of their own, but I wonder how many of them were aware of the exact nature of the camera that was filming their arrival. Many, particularly at the beginning of the film, seem to be in a hurry and appear to barely be aware of the cinematograph at all. But notice at about 0:11, a man stops and appears to take his own photograph of the device. It would be quite something to learn that a copy of that picture still exists somewhere. Then, towards the end, the last few people off the boat pause long enough to look directly at the camera and tip their hats. But are they being polite to the cameraman, or do they somehow know this is a film in which they will appear? Whatever they knew, I doubt any of them suspected that there would still be people in the 21st century watching them come ashore.


~ by Jared on February 11, 2023.

One Response to “Film History Essentials: Le Débarquement du Congrès de Photographie à Lyon (1895)”

  1. […] a precursor to more specific non-fiction subgenres like educational films, travelogues, etc.). But Le Débarquement du Congrès de Photographie à Lyon pointed the way towards filmmaking as journalism, and the films of performers pointed to the […]


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