The Celluloid Dreams of Louis Le Prince (and William Friese-Greene) Part 2

In Part 1, Louis Le Prince came unstuck with stickiness whilst shooting his first films on paper negative in October 1888. A solution was on its way, in the form of Eastman/ Kodak Transparent Film, but that solution was over a year away. Did Le Prince find a viable alternative in the meantime? Read on…

Ad for Vergara/Froedman film October 1887

We’ve looked at some of the early products made with celluloid-type substances, when there was much speculation about how useful it could be for photography, but a usable material remained out of reach. 1887 was the year that began to change. In Dublin in 1886, a clever chemist named Francis Froedman – whose pharmacy makes a cameo appearance in James Joyce’s Ulysses – had patented a method to create “transparent flexible material”. In England, Felix Vergara had been working on a transparent paper-based film but now bought the rights to Froedman’s method and began manufacturing.

Over in Paris, lawyer turned chemist George Balagny was up to something similar at this time and secured a deal with Lumière et Fils for its manufacture – a company who would later play a significant role in the commercialisation of moving pictures. But in both cases, these were sheets of ‘film’ which were flexible to a degree. Flexible is not the same as rollable. The intention here was to replace glass plates. However, given the success of the rollable Eastman paper negative and stripping films, rollability was sought after.

It helps to have a picture of what went into any photographic negative. There were two main layers:

The Base: such as glass, metal, paper, celluloid

The Emulsion: the thin coating of light-sensitive chemicals, usually suspended in collodion or gelatine.

But here’s where it gets confusing. Both collodion and gelatine could be chemically treated to form a transparent layer which could be used as a base – these were what most of the non-celluloid film sheets were made of. So, for instance, you might spread an emulsion layer of gelatine on a gelatine base. Then one has to bear in mind that collodion chemically has a lot in common with celluloid. At times, ‘gelatine’, ‘collodion’ and ‘celluloid’ get used very loosely and interchangeably, despite their actual differences. For instance, in 1891, when Edison is being interviewed about his first successful experiments in capturing motion pictures, he repeatedly talks about using ‘gelatine film’, whilst Scientific American correctly refers to it as ‘celluloid’ in their description.

Ad for Carbutt celluloid in Anthonys Photographic Bulletin April 1889

Celluloid really hit the photographic headlines in December 1888 with reports of the presentation made by John Carbutt to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, the USA’s foremost scientific institution. It was catchily entitled “A perfect substitute for glass as a support for gelatine bromide of silver for use in photography”: imagine that blazoned across the poster. But what he had to say was significant. His Keystone Dry Plate Company had come up with a way of slicing blocks of celluloid into sheets just one hundredth of an inch thick and treating them so as to become an excellent alternative to glass plates: reliable and tougher but with just 7% of the weight. They were soon being widely used both sides of the Atlantic. Carbutt also demonstrated a camera back for rapidly changing these film sheets, as Friese-Greene had done three years previously (see Part 1).

One hundredth of an inch. That’s really thin, right? Wrong. It’s not nearly thin enough to roll up and put in a movie camera, as we’ll see.

As 1889 began, William Friese-Greene – unaware of the work of Le Prince – was preparing to patent a single-lens, moving picture camera that used “photographic sensitive films”. But where was the right material to be found? Celluloid was clearly the strongest contender. There are unverified stories that both Le Prince and Friese-Greene attempted to create their own film from the raw celluloid ‘dope’. However, even to create sheets as good as Carbutt’s had required an industrial process and to make lengthy strips of it necessitated very long, flawless glass tables to flow the material onto. There was no DIY method to achieve it and they surely didn’t. But something announced on June 15, 1889 looked like a game-changer:

In their excitement, Eastman had rather overstated their case. They had not yet even built the factory which could turn their experiments into commercial reality. It would be November before the product hit the US market, let alone reached Britain. But that summer there were others trying to fill the void – and they were to be found in Paris.

From May to October 1889, Paris hosted an Exposition Universelle, an all-singing, all-dancing celebration of everything new and exciting. Amongst its wonders was a section devoted to photography. Significantly for our story, in the midst of the hoopla came the first International Photographic Congress, from 6th to 17th August. Around 250 international photographic eminences subscribed to it, but only about one hundred actually attended the sessions. Just four of those were from Britain and one half of that select party consisted of William Friese-Greene and his friend and photographic co-conspirator, Philip Braham, a respected designer of optical equipment.

And so it was that Friese-Greene found himself rubbing shoulders with many figures who loomed large in the business of capturing movement with photography at one point or another: including Etienne-Jules Marey, Albert Londe, Jules Janssen and Antoine Lumière. Louis Le Prince was not amongst the delegates to the Congress and, somewhat surprisingly, neither his wife, nor his son, nor any of his assistants in their many testimonies state that he attended the 1889 Exposition Universelle, despite having participated in previous ones. If he had, he could have seen the impressive Electrotachyscope of Ottomar Anschutz with its short, steady photographic sequences or Emile Reynaud’s Praxinoscope projecting animated drawn sequences – although it appears Le Prince caught this on an earlier visit to Paris with his wife and was much inspired.

Marey with Georges Demenÿ and friend taking bets on whether he could photograph firing a baby goat out of a cannon (I’m assuming)

On Thursday 15th August at 2.30pm, the members of the Congress gathered at the Station Physiologique in the Parc des Princes at the invitation of the man who founded and ran the place: Monsieur Marey – also exhibiting his work at the Exposition Universelle. Marey gave them the full tour and a detailed explanation of his various methods of capturing images of movement for scientific analysis, which he referred to as photochronography (no, I didn’t make a mistake there). Most of his work had been on glass plates, but recently he had come up with a new mechanism which could run a short section of paper stripping film (see Part 1), around a metre long and 9cm wide, through his camera, stopping it dozens of times a second.

To achieve this, he used a fairly basic method. The film was pulled through horizontally with an electromagnet operating a clamp to hold the film momentarily whilst a slit in a disc revolved past, before it was released and snatched away. It was a bit hit and miss. Some fantastic results were achieved but it frequently went wrong, resulting in blurring, overlap of images or the film tearing. Obviously, only the successful attempts were kept.

Despite many similarities, there was a fundamental difference in approach between a camera designed to freeze motion for analysis and one designed to capture movement in order to recreate it on a screen. Marey had no interest in projection (beyond illustrative lantern slides) whilst, at this stage, both Le Prince and Friese-Greene were thinking about individually mounting frames for reproduction in series.

The Le Prince camera tugged the film upwards onto an intermittently turning reel. It too used a clamp to hold the film for exposure. Despite the system theoretically pulling a roughly equal amount up each time, shortcomings in the design meant that pictures often overlapped, which was undesirable.

The Friese-Greene and Evans camera fed out one frame length at a time from the top reel, which was then wound onto the bottom reel after exposure, without the use of a clamp. It seems that the spacing was pretty even and there was no overlap – on the contrary, there was a large gap between frames. But no sprockets were used in any of these three cameras.

If Friese-Greene was on that tour he would for sure have been engrossed by Marey’s show and tell, but he also knew that the camera of his just mentioned had more sophisticated features and was at that very moment under construction in Hatton Garden. However, M. Marey had some other extremely interesting news for the assembled photographers. Lately he’d been experimenting with using strips of a new material he had obtained, created by the afore-mentioned M. Balagny, manufactured by Lumière. It was a transparent film made of gelatine emulsion on a collodion base, which was to be found in the Exposition Universelle, alongside some similar products.

Friese-Greene would have been paying very close attention now. If this was what it appeared to be, Christmas had just come early for him – and for Louis Le Prince.

Sequence taken on Balagny film by Marey in 1889 (College de France)

In Part 3 we’ll look at what these developments meant and what they lead to in Le Prince’s work.

The Celluloid Dreams of Louis Le Prince, Part 2: At the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle, Friese-Greene sees something that may be a game changer – for him and Le Prince

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