When one thinks of early cinema, the names of Louis and Auguste Lumière shine brightly out of the history textbooks. Their short, silent documentaries of everyday life capture the mundane, yet fascinating events in France during the 1890s. Credited with producing the ï¬rst “documentary” ï¬lm (although the term was not coined by critics until 1926), a glass projection still hangs on the spot of the Lumière institute in Lyon where their ï¬rst (and shamelessly self-promoting) ï¬lm Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory was shot in 1895.
The widespread distribution of the Lumière brothers’ works helped propagate the allure and popularity of the cinema, if at ï¬rst for novelty value only. According to urban legend, Train Pulling into a Station (1895) inspired such terror and fear into European audiences that many ran cowering to the back of the theatre. True, the brothers were the ï¬rst famed cinematographers. But they cast something of a shadow over other earlier ï¬gures. It is as if the light shining out from their ï¬lms has caused the works of their predecessors to become overexposed in cultural memory: their outlines have become blurred, their signiï¬ cance in history hard to make out in a way similar to the deterioration of the fragile celluloid ï¬lm these works are set upon.
If one wishes to watch the ï¬ rst true documentary star and director, look no further than Louis Le Prince. Flick through any modern textbook on the history of ï¬lm, and his name will be come before the Lumière brothers: he is considered to be the true father of motion picture, as Louis Daguerre is to photography. Despite lasting a mere two seconds, his Roundhay Garden Scene, which depicts his family strolling around their Leeds home, was ï¬lmed in 1888, a full seven years before the earliest work of the Lumières’ and three years before Edison patented his kinetoscope – an early motion picture device, designed for viewers to watch ï¬lms one at a time through a tiny peep-hole. True, his work may be somewhat underwhelming. His four surviving ï¬lms last but a couple seconds each, but depict fascinating scenes of northern working class life that would have been otherwise lost to the ether.
But if Le Prince were truly the ï¬rst documentary ï¬lm maker, why is his memorial reduced to just two blue plaques dotted across Leeds? The Lumière brothers have an entire institute to show oï¬€ their bizarre ï¬lm guns and collected works, yet Le Prince has very little in comparison. The answer lies in the lack of distribution: none of Le Prince’s works were ever shown outside Leeds, whilst the Lumière brothers’ works were sent across Europe to shock and enthral audiences. Le Prince is the ï¬rst tragic ï¬gure upon the ï¬lm set: and arguably a victim of the seething patent wars raging around photographic technology in the 1890s. Whilst travelling through France on his way to patent a new camera and launch a promotion tour to the USA, he disappeared onboard a train and was never seen again. His disappearance helped to propagate the supposed “curse” that surrounds his ï¬rst work on ï¬lm. Theories range from suicide due to bankruptcy, arranged disappearance due to homosexuality and even murder by agents of Thomas Edison due to his rival patent claims.
We may never know the truth, but what is certain is that his early and unfortunate death allowed his competitors to neatly clip his frames from the reel of cinema history, and his works became hidden from the public eye as the man himself. Only recently have they been restored to widespread public knowledge.