Louis Le Prince, The Father of Cinematography

Nov 15, 2023 0 comments

In any casual conversation regarding the history of film, the name of Louis Le Prince seldom arises. Yet, this legendary French artist and inventor stands out as perhaps the most important figure in the history of filmmaking. Le Prince was the man responsible for the very first recording of motion images on film. It was recorded one October day in 1888 in the garden of Oakwood Grange in Roundhay, Leeds. The recording, which is barely 2 seconds long, captures a scene in which Le Prince’s wife, his son and his parents-in-law are seen walking merrily around in circles in the garden.

Louis Le Prince was born in Metz, in 1842. As a young boy, Le Prince often visited the studio of his father’s friend, Louis Daguerre, one of the pioneers of photography, from which he may have received his first lessons. Later, he studied painting in Paris and then post-graduated in chemistry at Leipzig University.

Le Prince moved to Leeds in 1866, and started working for John Whitley, a friend from college who owned a firm that made brass valves and components. Le Prince fell in love with Whitley’s sister Elizabeth, who was a talented artist herself, and got married three years later. Together they opened the School of Applied Art and became well renowned for their work in fixing colored photographs on to metal and pottery. Their portraits of Queen Victoria and Prime Minister William Gladstone were placed in a time capsule in the foundation stone of Cleopatra's Needle in London.

Louis Le Prince

During this time Le Prince began interested in ‘moving’ photograph and designed a camera with as many as 16 lenses that took as many pictures by firing the 16 independent shutters in sequence. This was the first invention he patented. Although the camera was capable of 'capturing' motion, it wasn't a complete success because each lens photographed the subject from a slightly different viewpoint and thus the image would have jumped about, if he had been able to project it.

Eventually, Le Prince figured out that he would have to use a single lens. But capturing motion was not quite as simple as just letting the film rush past the lens and opening the shutter sixteen times a second. This would take blurred pictures because the film would actually be moving during the exposure. So he made a clamp to stop the film before the shutter opens to expose the image. The shutter was a hole in a spinning disc.

On 14 October 1888, armed with this new camera, Le Prince gathered his family consisting of his wife Annie, his son Adolphe, and his wife’s parents Joseph and Sarah Whitley at Oakwood Grange, the home of his parents-in-law and asked them to do something silly while he recorded them in his new camera. The group walked around in circles, laughing to themselves. The resulting recording became the earliest surviving motion images. A few days later, Le Prince took his camera to Leeds Bridge to film road traffic and pedestrians crossing the bridge.

Le Prince’s 16-lens camera and projector.

Le Prince’s Single-lens camera.

Of course, Le Prince realized that capturing the pictures on film is only half the problem. His main challenge was turning his collection of still images into motion pictures, by projecting them in quick succession onto a wall. Unfortunately flexible celluloid wasn’t invented until November 1888. So, he printed his pictures onto glass slides and arranged to drop them down a tube in front of a lens. The slides would be caught at the bottom in a slotted belt that would spiral its way up to the top to continue the projection. Needless to say, it wasn’t a great success. However, it was still the best anyone had invented yet.

Related: Eadweard Muybridge and the world’s first motion picture

In September 1890, Le Prince decided to return to New York to join his wife and children who had been there for the last three years. His wife had prepared a theatre for the unveiling of his films to the world in their New York Mansion. Louis had his cameras and projectors boxed up and ready to ship, when he decided to pay his brother a visit in Dijon, France. On September 16, Le Prince boarded a train back to Paris, but when the train arrived, his friends discovered that Le Prince was not on board. The last person who had seen him was his brother, who had come to the station to see him off. The police conducted a search but found no bodies nor luggage. Le Prince had mysteriously disappeared.

Le Prince’s widow assumed foul play, probably from one of Louis’ many competitors, but no concrete evidence emerged. Seven years after his disappearance, Thomas Edison tried to take credit for the invention of the motion camera. Le Prince’s widow and son tried to fight it out in court, but the court ruled in favor of Edison acknowledging that Edison was the inventor of motion pictures and dismissed the validity of all of Le Prince’s work. Two years later Adolphe Le Prince was found dead on Fire Island near New York

Le Prince was largely forgotten as he disappeared before the first public demonstration of the result of his work, having never shown his invention to any photographic society or scientific institution or the general public. Thomas Edison got credited in the US as the inventor of cinema, while in France, the Lumière Brothers are hailed as inventors of the Cinématographe device and for the first commercial exhibition of motion-picture films, in Paris in 1895.

However, in Leeds, Le Prince is celebrated as a local hero. As early as 1930, a bronze memorial tablet was installed at 160 Woodhouse Lane, Le Prince's former workshop. There is a now a blue plaque at the same place that commemorates his work.


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