Film History Essentials: Je Vous Aime (1891)

•January 17, 2023 • 1 Comment

(English: I Love You)

What it’s about:

The camera frames a man’s head and shoulders in close-up. Keeping the rest of his face immobile (with even his eyes closed as though to focus attention on one place only), the man exaggeratedly mouths the words “je vous aime.”

Why it’s essential:

The man in this film is Georges Demenÿ, who worked closely with Étienne-Jules Marey for 20 years, beginning when he enrolled as a student in one of Marey’s courses in 1874. In the early 1880s, the Municipal Council of Paris subsidized a lab site for Marey that was called the “Physiological Station.” Here, he was able to create an area that could accommodate the chronophotography of a large number and variety of subjects. However, he often spent part of the year living and working from Naples, leaving Demenÿ to run operations at the station as his trusted assistant.

Sometime in 1890 or 1891, Marey was approached by Hector Marichelle, director of the Institut National de Jeunes Sourds de Paris. The Institute was the first public school for the deaf in the world, and had already been in existence for well over a century. Marichelle had the idea that it might be possible to use moving pictures of people speaking to teach his students to speak and to read lips. It was a radical notion considering the state of development of motion photography at the time, and a project with some potential for prestige. Marey assigned it to Demenÿ.

I can’t find any further information about the results of the project for Marichelle’s school, which suggests that it wasn’t very successful, but for Demenÿ it was life-changing. In addition to photographing speech, he developed an invention that he called the “Phonoscope” (pictured at right) in order to allow people to view his photographs in motion. The invention relied on a disc with images placed around the edge in sequence and rotated past the viewer in front of a light source. Of course, disc-based motion picture viewing was extremely limiting and could only accommodate durations of a second or two before repeating or changing out the disc. Still, the phonoscope had a certain versatility. It could be used by a single viewer through a peephole, or it could project images for a larger audience.

Demenÿ demonstrated the device at the Académie des Sciences in July, 1891, and showed a whole series of his motion pictures to an audience of over 1000 at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers in December. These exhibitions were successful enough that Demenÿ patented the phonoscope in March of 1892, and in April he showed it off at the Exposition Internationale de Photographie. The phonoscope began to get attention in a variety of publications, and Demenÿ became fascinated by the possibility of commercializing his work. He asked Marey to order an additional six cameras to be sold, but Marey, ever the scientist and never the businessman, refused.

At the end of the 1892, Demenÿ went ahead with forming his own company, the Société de Phonoscope—a move which seems to have infuriated Marey. The two men, once such close partners, finally parted ways permanently in 1894, with Marey continuing his scientific work, and Demenÿ pursuing his dreams of fame and fortune in the burgeoning field of motion pictures.

Why you should see it:

Je Vous Aime may have had a greater impact on the course of Demenÿ’s life than it did on the course of film history, but this is the most detailed motion picture we’ve seen of a human face. In fact, though there are exceptions, it would be many years before motion pictures would regularly incorporate shots taken this close to their subjects. I don’t know how many of these Demenÿ made, or who chose their content, but out of all the words or phrases that exist, it’s interesting that the one we have is of him saying “I love you.”

Incidentally, although I can’t confirm this independently, one source suggests that Demenÿ’s eyes are closed here, not to focus attention on the movement of his lips, but due to the lighting required to make those movements visible: a set of mirrors reflecting sunlight directly into his face. This certainly seems plausible, given how studios set up for film production in the coming years would be designed largely to provide as much access as possible to plenty of sunlight.

Film History Essentials: Monkeyshines, No. 1 & 2 (1890)

•January 15, 2023 • Leave a Comment

What it’s about:

A blurred, indistinct figure, shot from around the knees up, engages in some sort of performance for the camera that involves moving their arms. Then, a somewhat clearer, but still blurry, figure goes through a series of more exaggerated movements for the camera, waving their arms and twisting and bending their body before removing what appears to be some kind of hat.

Why it’s essential:

In early 1888, Eadweard Muybridge (Sallie Gardner at a Gallop, Buffalo Running, etc.) visited Thomas Edison at his New Jersey laboratory and talked with him about combining the Muybridge zoopraxiscope with the Edison phonograph to create motion pictures with sound. This was the same idea Wordsworth Donisthorpe already had (albeit using his own kinesigraph, rather than the zoopraxiscope) a decade earlier. Edison didn’t take Muybridge up on the proposal. Instead, he waited several months and then filed a patent for a device that would be the visual counterpart to the phonograph. He called it the “kinetoscope*,” and he assigned a team headed by William K. L. Dickson to develop it. (The kinetoscope, unlike the phonograph, ended up just being the “playback” device. The corresponding camera, developed during the same period, was called the “kinetograph.”)

At first, work focused on recording images on a rotating cylinder (as seen at right), an idea that was presumably rooted in its similarity to the wax cylinders used by Edison’s phonographs. That idea ultimately proved unworkable, but the team continued to pursue it into the following year. Nevertheless, it did produce the first ever motion pictures recorded in the United States. Monkeyshines, No. 1 and No. 2 (and a lost No. 3) were experiments, never meant to be seen by an audience. It’s notable that both of these surviving examples are an obvious step backward from almost everything else we’ve seen. These were not successful experiments, though their significance is undeniable (in part because they weren’t successful).

Meanwhile, late in the summer of 1889, Edison traveled to the Paris World’s Fair, where the just-completed Eiffel Tower had been unveiled. While Edison was in Paris, he met Étienne-Jules Marey (L’Homme Machine, Mosquinha, etc.) and learned of his use of celluloid film strips to capture sequential images. He also witnessed the Théâtre Optique and the electrical tachyscope in action. The former was a system invented by Charles-Émile Reynaud (La Rosace Magique, Le Singe Musicien) for turning a strip of hand-drawn images into animated moving pictures by drawing them rapidly past a system of lights and mirrors using a series of perforations between each image. The latter was a different projection device invented by German photographer Ottomar Anschütz that relied, in part, on an intermittent light source to produce the illusion of a moving image. When Edison returned in the fall, he filed a patent caveat for a system that incorporated perforated strips of film that could be drawn through the system by means of sprockets, and ultimately the design incorporated intermittent light as well.

So, if Edison returned with fresh ideas in the fall of 1889, why was Dickson still experimenting with cylinders in 1890? There is actually a disagreement over whether these were produced in June of 1889 or November of 1890, with evidence that supports both claims. It certainly makes sense that they could be from before Edison’s Paris trip. On the other hand, some sources suggest Edison’s initial idea was to record the images directly onto the cylinder, and that they experimented with different materials for the cylinder and different coatings. But the surviving Monkeyshines actually consist of images on photosensitive paper (as seen at left) wrapped around a cylinder rather than recorded directly on it, suggesting that they spent additional time on successive iterations of the cylinder idea.

Also, in From Peep Show to Palace, David Robinson says: “Despite […] the new possibilities offered by flexible film, the cylinder experiments seem to have been carried on to the bitter end.” (pg. 29) And it’s not as if they were struggling along with cylinders during that entire year. For a full 6 months in the middle of 1890, Dickson seems to have abandoned the project entirely in order to work on another, more-pressing venture. Robinson further suggests that it was actually the obvious failure of Monkeyshines (after almost 2 years of work, albeit sporadic) that finally convinced them to give up their stubborn attempts with cylinders entirely.

You may have noticed that I’ve name-checked almost every photographer or inventor we’ve discussed so far at some point above. Thomas Edison would spend the next quarter century aggressively establishing and maintaining control of the entire concept of motion pictures as his own intellectual property, so it’s worth pointing out that he stole the idea itself and many of the elements that made it work from men who had already been working in the field for several years, and then handed off the actual development of the technology to someone else.

He made all sorts of utterly ludicrous claims in later decades that we know to be outright fabrications, including that he had “invented the modern motion picture in the Summer of 1889” and that he had been “able to perfect the motion-picture camera” in 1887, in order to claim that he was the man who had, all on his own, invented motion pictures. However, his own initial idea, to simply rework the mechanism of the phonograph for sight instead of sound, was a total dead-end, and it seems unlikely in the extreme that anyone working under his direction would have cracked the problem if the solution were dependent on him alone. (You can see the completed experimental kinetoscope on the right, and watch it in action here.)

There’s no question that Edison was a brilliant inventor, but in some ways he was an even more brilliant entrepreneur, and if there was a limit to his utterly ruthless shamelessness, I’m not sure what it was. A more charitable reading might point out that for almost 20 years, several different innovators had been circling around a breakthrough in creating and exhibiting motion pictures, but for various reasons no one had actually managed to bring it about. Edison was the man who had the vision to put all of the pieces together, and both the resources and the killer instinct to build it into a successful business venture. But he was also a man who played for all the marbles, and that had consequences.

There’s a strange irony to Edison’s (“Edison’s”) first experimental films being called “Monkeyshines,” an old-timey word that means “playful, mischievous behavior” . . . The one thing Edison wasn’t doing here was just playing around.

Why you should see it:

It’s strange to watch the Monkeyshines because they look exactly like what you’d expect a “first-ever motion picture” to look like: barely developed and incredibly primitive . . . an idea that is in its infancy. They look, in fact, very much like the “indescribable blur” that Sir George Newnes’ pair of “experts” predicted would be the result of any attempt to photograph motion. But we know, and Edison and Dickson certainly also knew, that it had already been done quite successfully. It’s just that they were starting on the problem entirely from scratch without reference to any of the advances that had been made already. They had to fail their way before they could succeed someone else’s way. But it’s an interesting failure, and I can see why Edison found it an attractive idea to pursue. You can also see from the picture above that this was an idea for exhibition of motion pictures, but not an idea for projection. With this invention, one person watches at a time, and that feature of the kinetoscope, as we will see, remained.

Film History Essentials: Mosquinha (1890)

•January 14, 2023 • Leave a Comment

(English: Fly)

What it’s about:

In extreme close-up, a fly launches itself into the air and beats its wings several times as it flies out of the top of the frame. Various measuring devices placed in the margins record additional data for further study.

Why it’s essential:

Ever the consummate scientist, Étienne-Jules Marey continued to push the boundaries of cinematography throughout this period in pursuit of studying a wide variety of subjects. During the early 1890s, he adapted his camera to a microscope to photograph the movements of vorticellae (the very small), took time-lapse photographs of a starfish gradually turning over (the very slow), and, in this case, filmed a fly in slow-motion (the very fast).

I wish I knew more about the exact circumstances and methods surrounding these incredible images, but unfortunately I haven’t been able to find any additional information. Still, the images themselves tell quite a story on their own. Even for a modern audience, they are stunning. An average housefly beats its wings around 200 times per second, so it’s not hard to tell how astoundingly short the intervals of Marey’s photography must have been to capture this.

If you watch closely right at the beginning, a flicker illuminates a ruler to the far right of the frame, which provides scale. I don’t know what the object that the fly is launching from is, so this is purely speculative, but I suspect that it is either a trigger for the camera or a scale measuring mass, or both. You can see it rock ever so slightly as the fly flaps away, and in the second shot, you can see some sort of needle in the bottom left (casting a shadow against the light backdrop) that seems to be bobbing back and forth in response to the fly having launched itself skyward.

Marey must have been thrilled. His fascination with the flight of insects went back decades. Over 20 years before, he had designed a device that included an artificial insect capable of demonstrating how their wings move in flight (pictured at right). He had also conducted a few other experiments to try and break down the details of insects in flight. But none of his earlier efforts could have come close to the level of detail he managed to capture here.

Why you should see it:

Every detail of this brief film speaks to the care and precision of its creation. The lighting, the angle, and the proximity of the camera have all been chosen with a great deal of skill. Watching this, it’s no wonder Marey has been called one of the fathers of cinematography. Modern viewers have also remarked a great deal on how startling it is to see this ordinary fly enlarged and depicted in such detail. It seems monstrous, even terrifying to a few. The title, the Portuguese word for “fly” (again, the explanation for this choice is a mystery to me), strikes many as reminiscent of the names of Godzilla’s rivals. It’s a connection that is far from anything Marey could have imagined, or intended, but it speaks to how his work still captivates our attention and imagination.

Film History Essentials: London’s Trafalgar Square (1890)

•January 13, 2023 • Leave a Comment

What it’s about:

Enclosed by a round frame, traffic moves through a shot of Trafalgar Square. A street lamp occupies the foreground, with the National Gallery dome occupying the background. In-between, a number of people pass by in vehicles and on foot, and a fountain is clearly visible in action on the righthand side of the frame.

Why it’s essential:

Wordsworth Donisthorpe, in addition to having an incredible name, was one of the first people to attempt to make a motion picture camera. He patented his idea for one in 1876, a full two years before Muybridge’s photographs of a horse in motion were publicized! He called his idea the “Kinesigraph.” His Kinesigraph would, he said:

“facilitate the taking of a succession of photographic pictures at equal intervals of time, in order to record the changes taking place in or the movement of the object being photographed, and also by means of a succession of pictures so taken of any moving object to give to the eye a presentation of the object in continuous movement as it appeared when being photographed.”

Read carefully and you’ll notice that he’s describing, not only the recording of motion pictures, but also their presentation.

Although there were a few people working on motion photography by this time, connecting it specifically with exhibition was pretty unique. But Donisthorpe didn’t stop there. In 1878, he suggested that his Kinesigraph could be combined with a brand-new invention called the Phonograph to produce talking pictures. He immediately saw that potential over a decade before Edison himself tried the same idea. He does not, however, seemed to have produced a working camera until many years later. In 1889, Donisthorpe took out another patent for a device he was also calling the Kinesigraph, but by now he had a partner: his cousin, William Carr Crofts.

Donisthorpe had big ideas, but Crofts seems to have had the technical skill to actually realize them. He, like some others who were working on this problem during this same time, saw the significance to his project of celluloid film, which had just been introduced. By the summer of 1890, Donisthorpe and Crofts had a working model that they used to film this view of Trafalgar Square, the oldest surviving motion picture of London. (A replica of their Kinesigraph appears at right.) They hadn’t beaten Le Prince, but no one knew about Le Prince’s achievements yet, and they were way ahead of almost everyone else. Unfortunately, it turned out they were a little too far ahead.

The two men had made a motion picture, but they couldn’t crack the problem of how to project it for an audience. Donisthorpe approached Sir George Newnes, a wealthy publisher with a known fascination for cutting-edge technology, to ask for funding. Newnes consulted his own “experts” as to the viability of Donisthorpe’s idea, and they judged it to be “wild, visionary, and ridiculous,” and opined that “the only result of attempting to photograph motion would be an indescribable blur.” Their assessment was surprisingly short-sighted considering that there were people who had already been successfully photographing motion for several years (perhaps they’d seen a few of Marey’s single-plate experiments).

Unfortunately, between Newnes’ refusal and Crofts’ death just a few years later, Donisthorpe’s hopes of being the one to realize his prescient vision of the future were over. His foresight, however, remained as keen as ever. In a book published (by Newnes!) in 1898 (a slightly-fictionalized account of a trip around the Mediterranean with Newnes), Donisthorpe reflected, rather bleakly:

“Shall we never be able to glide back up the stream of Time, and peep into the old home, and gaze on the old faces? Perhaps when the phonograph and the kinesigraph are perfected, and some future worker has solved the problem of colour photography, our descendants will be able to deceive themselves with something very like it: but it will be but a barren husk: a soulless phantasm and nothing more.”

-Down the Stream of Civilization, p. 32

By 1898, everyone could see that motion pictures had potential. In fact, Newnes himself invested in a motion picture syndicate that year. But they were still very much in their infancy. It would be nearly 40 years before motion, sound, and full color would be regularly combined to make feature films, but Donisthorpe (who died in 1914) foresaw the possibilities, what they would mean, and also what they wouldn’t.

Why you should see it:

I don’t know if it’s the round frame, the picturesque shot composition, or some other factor, but London’s Trafalgar Square almost puts me in mind of an animated postcard. The static elements dominate the shot, drawing our attention even as people and carriages hurry by in the bottom third of the frame. The fountain is the one exception, an immobile object that nonetheless teems with motion. The water tumbles and flows, animated and full of life, but confined to one spot, just off-center, as everyone around it enters from one side of the frame and exits out the other. It’s a contradiction that feels appropriate to the only surviving piece of film by a man who was bursting with such incredible ideas, but who was stuck watching from the sidelines as others gained immortality by turning his ideas from speculative concepts into concrete realities.

Film History Essentials: Escrime (1890)

•January 12, 2023 • Leave a Comment

(English: Fencing)

What it’s about:

Two men standing against a dark backdrop demonstrate several different fencing techniques and positions.

Why it’s essential:

Through most of the 1880s, Étienne-Jules Marey continued his experiments with photography and motion, but by the end of the decade he’d made a few upgrades. The most significant of these was replacing the glass plates inside his cameras with strips of film, a change he apparently made within only a few months of Le Prince’s successful experiments with film. Of Marey’s many chronophotographic works, though, very few are considered “motion pictures,” and even fewer depict actual humans.

Marey was particularly interested in flying and falling animal bodies, but this isn’t to say he didn’t photograph people at all. He also had a great interest in the motions of athletes, particularly runners and jumpers. In fact, in 1900 he was specially commissioned to photograph the athletes at the Paris Olympic Games. His photographs breaking down the movements of America’s champion hurdler, Alvin Kraenzlin, changed the way future runners approached that event.

Despite his innovations, Marey, like Le Prince, doesn’t have the same name recognition as the other leading luminaries associated with the birth of cinema. This is for the very simple reason that he had no interest in commercial public exhibition of his work. He was a scientist, not a showman. Nevertheless, unlike Le Prince, Marey’s contributions served as a known source of inspiration for those later innovators. His achievements were widely reported by the global press, and he published multiple books in the early 1890s about movement and the photography of movement, considered by some to be the earliest works on cinematography. His mechanism for advancing the strip of film as the shutter opened and closed formed the principle that all of the later cameras followed (each in their own patentably-unique way).

In Escrime, we can see all of those advances fully in action. Marey is shooting under much more controlled surroundings than Le Prince. As a result, the two men fencing show up with a clarity of image and of motion that we haven’t seen before, even where the film has degraded badly. Marey’s set-up here, with the action contained on a small stage, very well-lit (usually by direct sunlight), against a black backdrop, would become the standard practice for filming motion pictures over the next several years.

Why you should see it:

The video below is a collection of several different shots of the same two men fencing, ranging in length from a few to a few dozen images. Each is shown first at “full speed,” then slowed down to emphasize Marey’s purpose of studying the fencers’ motions. Neither man is wearing the standard fencing “uniform” (and it was standard by then . . . I checked). That’s an interesting choice (by Marey?), and it makes it quite easy to tell the two apart, even when they switch sides in some clips.

It’s not quite suggestive of narrative intent, but making their faces visible is certainly more compelling than the anonymity of fencing masks. Unlike the raw athleticism of Marey’s later photographs of mostly-nude runners and jumpers, there is an elegance to these shots that is representative of the sport. But I also see, in these brief thrusts, ripostes, and parries, the shadows of a thousand swashbuckling duelists who would one day thrill the audiences of future films.

Film History Essentials: Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge (1888)

•January 11, 2023 • Leave a Comment

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.

Film History Essentials: Roundhay Garden Scene (1888)

•January 10, 2023 • Leave a Comment

What it’s about:

Four people move about a garden (yard) in Roundhay, Leeds. The nearby house occupies the left side of the frame. The young man, beginning by the house steps and facing the camera, purposefully marches in a wide semi-circle that takes him to the opposite side of the frame, facing away from the camera. The young woman, just to his right, turns slowly and begins to step away from the camera. The older woman, standing a bit further back, begins an exaggerated march in place, almost as though she is miming walking. The older man, behind the older woman and facing away from her and the camera, strides a few steps forward, then turns (still striding) and begins to walk back towards the group.

Why it’s essential:

This is it! The birth of cinema!

Well, no, not really. That has already happened, but also it won’t happen for several more years. As I’ve said, I can’t tell you precisely where cinema begins. But this is the most important landmark yet. Louis Le Prince’s Roundhay Garden Scene, shot at his father-in-law’s house on October 14, 1888, is the oldest surviving piece of film (that we know of currently). Everything that we’ve seen before this was a series of individual drawings or photographs that (depending on the work) may or may not have originally been intended to be viewed or projected in motion. This was recorded on an actual strip of film using a single-lens camera that represented a significant step forward from Le Prince’s earlier 16-lens design.

Louis Daguerre had taken the first photographic image of a person in 1838. Now, 50 years later, his son’s friend, a boy who grew up visiting his studio, had captured the first filmed moving picture of a person. It’s almost too poetic. To watch this is to witness the work of a man who is on the precipice of revolutionizing everything, and doing it years before the big names credited with the invention of cinema. Instead, Le Prince is largely forgotten where others became household names instead, as the result of a mystery that remains unsolved to this day.

Le Prince spent the next few years working on a method to successfully project his films for an audience, and in 1890 he planned to travel to New York in order to premier his work before the public for the first time. He was about to make history. Before leaving for the United States, he returned to France to visit his brother, then boarded a train to Paris on September 16. He was never seen again, disappearing without a trace. No sign of what had happened to him was ever found, and he was declared dead 7 years later. His achievements, many of which were never seen outside of his immediate circle of friends and family, remained largely unknown for decades. It’s a startlingly abrupt and unsatisfying ending to a story that was clearly far from over.

Why you should see it:

Le Prince’s story is haunting, but what’s most fascinating about the Roundhay Garden Scene is that it isn’t just the first movie (y’know, sort of), it’s the first home movie. The subjects are Le Prince’s son, his mother-in-law (who died 10 days after this was filmed), his father-in-law, and a friend of the family. It feels spontaneous in a way that we haven’t seen before now, but also extremely self-conscious in a way that we won’t see for some time yet.

These people are absolutely performing, but in a way that suggests that Le Prince said, “Okay, just do something! Move around! Whatever!” and started filming. Each person has a totally different reaction to that prompt. The result is momentous for reasons that have nothing to do with the people being filmed or what they’re doing. But it’s a 135-year old record of family and friends spending time together, and perhaps also being good sports in humoring Le Prince’s experiment, and that’s kind of beautiful in itself, isn’t it?

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

•January 9, 2023 • Leave a Comment

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.

Film History Essentials: L’Homme Machine (1885)

•January 8, 2023 • Leave a Comment

(English: Man a Machine)

What it’s about:

A series of figures comprised of dots and lines, vaguely resembling a stick-figure representation of a person, appear one-by-one across the screen, filling the frame from right to left. Each is configured slightly differently from the one before it as the stick figure “walks” by swinging its “arm” and raising and lowering its “leg.”

Why it’s essential:

I have chosen to translate the title as you see above based on the unconfirmed assumption that its creator, Étienne-Jules Marey, intentionally named it after La Mettrie’s seminal 1747 work of materialist philosophy. It’s certainly appropriate, given this image of a human figure represented by the fewest possible number of lines in order to demonstrate the purely mechanical aspects of the body in motion. Marey’s work should be reminiscent of (but is also clearly distinct from) the motion photography of Eadweard Muybridge.

The two were not only contemporaries, but communicated with each other, and even met in 1881 to discuss their work and methods. Actually, the connection between them runs even deeper than that. It was Marey’s drawings of horses in motion that first inspired Leland Stanford to attempt to depict the same process through photography. And, in turn, Muybridge’s photographs for Stanford ignited Marey’s pursuit of photography.

But although Muybridge’s efforts to captures bodies in motion began as an experiment to test a specific hypothesis, his most famous later work wasn’t notable for its scientific rigor so much as for its relationship with art and artists. This is where Muybridge’s and Marey’s work clearly diverges. Muybridge entered the field of motion photography after several years of already working as a photographer, and those were the main sensibilities he retained. Marey entered it as a scientist driven by the questions of an entire field of study.

Probably the most obvious difference lies in what they each produced. We’ve already seen several examples of Muybridge’s sequences of photographs shot by a series of a few dozen cameras triggered one after the other. Marey designed a single apparatus that could take several images in a sequence and record them all on the same plate. He called this device the “chronophotographic gun.” Marey’s invention was inspired by the much larger “Janssen revolver” that Janssen used to capture the transit of Venus across the sun in 1874, and Janssen’s design was, in turn, inspired by (and named after) the Colt revolver. So the “gun” label was entirely appropriate. Plus . . . Well, just look at it:

Where the Janssen revolver was enormous, larger even than a cannon, Marey’s chronophotographic gun was easily portable and usable by a single operator. In fact, he used it extensively to photograph birds during excursions to Naples, where the oddity of a man who seemed to be hunting birds but never fired at them earned him a nickname among the locals: “the idiot of Posillipo” (after the neighborhood he frequented).

Now, with as much of an innovator as Marey was, my jaw still dropped when (after having watched the animation several times) I first saw how L’Homme Machine was made. Like Sallie Gardner at a Gallop, it was produced from a series of reference images. Take a look at this example of the type of image used:

Primitive though it may be, this is likely the earliest attempt at motion capture animation, pre-dating the patenting of the processes that would later become commonplace, and their introduction to movie audiences, by decades. I’m kind of in awe of it.

Why you should see it:

Although produced for science, not for art, L’Homme Machine anticipates the work of many well-known avant-garde artists to come. It’s genuinely amazing the way he has reduced his figure to the bare essentials while still managing to convey exactly what it is at a glance. A collection of 2 dots and 5 lines advances across the screen, and the brain immediately says, “Ah, of course, a person walking.”

Film History Essentials: The Kiss (1884)

•January 7, 2023 • Leave a Comment

What it’s about:

Two nude women step toward each other, right arms outstretched as though for a handshake. They clasp hands and draw each other in, leaning forward to kiss as the woman on the right reaches out with her left hand to clasp the other woman’s arm. The scene is shot from 3 angles: from the side and then separately from behind each woman, all at such a distance as to precisely contain their full bodies in the frame.

Why it’s essential:

This sequence is listed on the most authoritative movie databases with a date of 1882. I don’t know how that came about, but I’m fairly certain that, as with the last film, that date can’t possibly be correct. In 1882, Eadweard Muybridge was embroiled in his lawsuit against Leland Stanford over credit for his photographs of Stanford’s horses. This suit was not simply a point of pride for Muybridge. In the wake of Stanford’s failure to credit him, London’s Royal Society of Arts, believing Muybridge had plagiarized, rescinded an offer of funding for his photographic studies, entirely upending his plans.

However, in 1883 he got an offer from the University of Pennsylvania and they set him up in a studio in Philadelphia, where he took tens of thousands of images over the following years. These appear to have been taken in that studio. I’ve put the year as 1884, not as definitive, but as a guess at the earliest date these could likely have been taken . . . Though in fact they are copyrighted 1887, as are the thousands of other photographs published by Muybridge that year in his monumental collection Animal Locomotion: An Electro-photographic Investigation of Consecutive Phases of Animal Movements. I’m not entirely sure where or when this title The Kiss originates, either, though that, too, is its standard film database listing. In Animal Locomotion, the page reads only “Plate 444,” and it seems to be cataloged elsewhere under the more descriptive title “Two women kissing.”

Regardless of what it’s called or when, precisely, it was taken, we have returned to a discussion of Muybridge’s work one final time because Plate 444 has a significance that went unrecognized until relatively recently: It represents the first-ever moving image of a kiss, predating the previous “first” by about a decade. And, at the height of the Victorian Era, it just happens to be a kiss between two women. And they both happen to be nude. The nudity, at least, doesn’t seem terribly significant. Certainly, a great many of Muybridge’s subjects appear in the nude, whether men, women, or children, and this seems entirely in keeping with what we’d expect from photographic studies of the motion of the human body that went on to become a major point of reference for artists. Their purpose was not to titillate.

Of even greater interest to modern audiences is the fact that this was a same-sex kiss. Does that make it an early victory for representation? Perhaps. I’m not here to burst anyone’s bubble on that front. I will say that I’ve also seen it suggested in a few places that photographing a nude man and a nude woman inhabiting the same physical space would have been considered pornographic, and that strikes me as a plausible consideration. But these two narratives are not mutually exclusive, either. Who these women were, and what, if anything, they were to each other is lost to history, and Muybridge’s intentions remain equally opaque. All we have are the images themselves.

Why you should see it:

As described at the beginning of the video below, I’ve embedded a version with a few different interpretations of this sequence of photographs. It sets them in motion at a few different speeds, and also includes a 2012 “remix” of sorts that incorporates music and some creative editing by a UK-based artist. I’m not sure that it really adds anything to the experience, but at less than a minute you can afford to form your own opinion. Here also is a link to a high-quality image of the original page containing all 24 photographs. Regardless of what version you prefer to experience, I hope you’ll agree that there’s something beautiful about witnessing such a simple, physical display of human connection and affection across all these years.