Louis Le Prince: the forgotten inventor who’s impossible to forget. But did he shoot on celluloid?
I shan’t summarise yet again the oft-told story of moving picture pioneer Louis Le Prince, since there is such a substantial Wikipedia entry about him. Indeed, I think he gets more space and detail than any other early movie inventor, bar Edison, beating out even the Lumière brothers. Not bad for someone who experimented with creating moving pictures on a film at an early date then disappeared, never having shown his work to anyone outside his immediate circle, or spoken to a journalist about it, or carried out a public demonstration.
In truth he was not forgotten, but unknown. He worked in great secrecy, not even trusting his closest collaborator, James Longley. Most likely Le Prince committed suicide, brought on by his financial difficulties and his failure to bring his dreams to fruition, taking his secrets with him. It’s clear that other early film figures like William Friese-Greene and Birt Acres went to their graves knowing almost nothing about him. Those who lived longer, like Robert Paul, were surprised found out about his achievements, decades later.
It was the efforts of E. Kilburn Scott, an engineer who had assisted Le Prince as a youngster, that put the inventor on the map for the first time – especially when he persuaded Le Prince’s daughter, Marie, to bring the surviving equipment and prints of sections of films over to Britain in 1930, which attracted international media attention. They are now kept at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford.
Since then, there’s barely been enough space between one “Le Prince, the forgotten inventor” press story and the next to actual forget about the man. He’s had a drama-documentary made about him, with accompanying book, a cinema documentary, a Buzzfeed programme, a (so far) 36-part podcast series and more books in the works. A cursory Google search turns up 20 pages of results about Louis Le Prince in the last 12 months.
It’s self-evident that his obsessive secrecy prevented him from influencing the development of moving pictures in any meaningful way, but what he achieved within that secrecy remains intriguing. Nonetheless, despite the manner in which his champions have promoted his primacy, no one has ever been able to answer the tantalising question: did Le Prince shoot anything on celluloid before disappearing into thin air (or, more likely, the River Seine)?
Early last year I examined glass negative copies of two series of images captured by Le Prince with his 1888 single-lens camera, and that led me to re-think the answer to this question.
First of all though, a refresher about the nature of celluloid is in order. The clearest and most comprehensive account of the history of this substance is to be found in “Living Pictures” by Deac Rossell, but I shall do my best to summarise. Various celluloid-like materials had appeared over the decades prior to the moving picture experiments of Le Prince, Friese-Greene, Donisthorpe and Edison in 1888-90. Probably the first was Alexander Parkes and his ‘Parkesine’, conceived in 1855. He saw straight away that it had potential to be very useful for photography as an alternative to the glass plates that were used, which were heavy, bulky, fragile and sharp.
Celluloid was conceived as a proto-plastic, an artificial substance that could be substituted for natural materials. For instance, it made an excellent alternative to ivory: no need to kill elephants for their tusks. It could be coloured and used decoratively, you could make billiard balls and false teeth out of it. Just one teensy drawback: the nitrocellulose at the heart of it was flammable, potentially explosive. So, it was unwise to puff on a cigar with your false teeth in or stand too near that open fire wearing celluloid buttons or collars. Despite these drawbacks, it enjoyed popularity as a way to make products that could be cheap, attractive and practical – to make everything from brooches to printing blocks.
Despite a great deal of development and improvement in terms of its uses, under various trade names, celluloid as an aid to photography remained little more than a pipedream for thirty years. When William Friese-Greene made his first appearance before the esteemed and fusty Photographic Society of Great Britain in the November of 1885, he presented a new camera back which he was in the process of patenting, to rapidly change a dozen films (i.e. sheets of photographic material) just with the turn of a handle. When criticised that it was unsuitable for glass plates, he responded that, “as he thought that films would be used in the future, he had not provided any arrangement for the use of glass plates.” They may have said he was a dreamer, but he was not the only one.
Days before, a Mr. Walker of the burgeoning US photographic giant, the Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company (later to be ‘Kodak’), gave a demonstration to the same society. He explained the Eastman-Walker Roll Holder, a camera back that could hold a roll of paper negative film under tension and wind it onto another roll, with a built-in clicker to tell you when the next frame was ready to be exposed. It would prove very popular, although the paper negative it held perhaps less so.
This “flexible negative support” was literally fine paper coated in photographic emulsion. The thing was, to print it after developing you preferably needed to make it transparent. As it turned out, the best option was also the stinkiest: a good soaking in castor oil followed by ironing the film. That would certainly make you popular if you did it at home. Eastman sold their own proprietary product “Translucine”, which was similar to Vaseline, and some users were happy melting butter, but contemporary accounts point to castor oil as the most effective option. Even then, the grain of the paper could still be visible. So, the forward-thinking George Eastman was already developing an alternative.
He came up with a refinement of an idea that had been knocking around for a while – stripping film – and christened it ‘American Film’. Here, a layer of water-soluble gelatine was laid over rollable paper and on top of that, a layer of insoluble, photo-sensitive emulsion. After developing the film, it was soaked in warm water, dissolving the gelatine and allowing the negative to be squeegeed off onto glass, from which it could, after further tricky steps, be printed. Results were better but it was undoubtedly a faff.
So, when Louis Le Prince wanted a roll of film to shoot his first tests with his new single-lens camera in October 1888, these were the options open to him. He shot two things in the private garden of his father-in-law’s house: family and friends moving around a lot (presumably because that’s what he told them he needed) and his son Adolphe playing a melodeon-type accordion. They were likely taken the same day, possibly even on the same roll of film, and both suffer from the same defect: great chunks of the image are missing along the edges. However, I’ve never seen anyone attempt to explain why.
I’ve done my best to consult with the finest minds on the history of photography, but my questions have remained unanswered. So, I’m going to put my theory out there and see if more information is forthcoming.
Examining these strips as a negative – that is, as they looked, once developed – these defects are revealed as black lumps with white areas around their edges. What that strongly suggests is that something has stuck to the surface of the film, which has also retarded the development of the parts of negative bordering these portions.
You may have had the same disappointing experience I have, when going through packs of old family photographs and suddenly finding that a bunch of them are stuck together in a clump. The culprit is that along the way they were stored somewhere slightly damp, not necessarily conspicuously so, and the emulsion of the image has softened, stuck to the backing paper of the next photo and then dried again. With luck, you can slowly peel them apart but sometimes, even employing the greatest delicacy, the backing of the next photo is ripped away, resolutely glued in torn patches over the picture.
My strong suspicion is that this is the fate that befell Le Prince’s first films on paper. Perhaps the roll of film itself was defective or perhaps it wasn’t processed immediately and moisture penetrated the tightly-wound edges. When the moment came for unrolling it for development, the paper backing tore off and stuck to some of the emulsion. Despite that, the image at the centre of the picture was clear enough to constitute a valid test. For a long time, I assumed these defects were the consequences of the complexities of handling Eastman’s American Film, but on reflection I think issues with a paper negative seem more likely.
But even putting that aside, fiddling about with castor oil or Vaseline was clearly not ideal. Some kind of photographic material that was reliable, transparent and rollable would be better. If only celluloid could somehow be that. But it wasn’t quite there yet. So, did Le Prince eventually film with celluloid or not? Or something like it, perhaps? We’ll take a very close look in Part 2.
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