National Media Museum blog

We explore the science, technology and art of the still and moving image, and its impact on our lives.

The mystery of Louis Le Prince, the Father of Cinematography

One of the great mysteries of cinema history doesn’t take place on the big screen, but rather, somewhat sensationally, occurs off camera at the very beginning of the story of the moving image.

The tale of Louis Le Prince, the man regarded as the father of cinematography, ends in rather peculiar circumstances which have yet to be resolved, but for movie lovers everywhere, it’s his achievements in the last few years of his life which have granted him a place in the history books.

Whilst Thomas Edison and the Lumière brothers dominated the headlines for inventing the equipment which made the moving image possible, Louis Le Prince preceded them by a number of years with a working model which captured motion outside his home in Roundhay, Leeds.

However, his achievements were not widely recognised, because not long before a scheduled public performance of his technology, Le Prince went missing with no clues as to his whereabouts.

Many people have since speculated on his fate (with theories ranging from suicide to murder by rival cinematographers), but the one undisputed fact is that Le Prince was the first past the post with his pioneering work in the medium which would ultimately become film.

Le Prince was born in Metz, France in 1841 and had the fortune during his youth of regularly visiting a studio belonging to a friend of his father – the photographic inventor Jacques Daguerre.

After studying chemistry and physics at University, Le Prince moved to England at the invitation of John Whitley, before establishing the Leeds Technical School of Art where he specialised in tinting and firing of photographic images.

Le Prince 16-lens camera (interior), 1886,  Louis Aime Augustin Le Prince © National Media Museum / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Le Prince 16-lens camera (interior), 1886, Louis Aime Augustin Le Prince © National Media Museum / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

During the 1880s, however, Le Prince became fascinated with the early cinematic technologies which were being developed. In 1886 he created a 16-lens camera and applied for an American patent on 2nd November of the same year, receiving this at the beginning of 1888; on 16th November 1888, he received a British patent for his invention.

The Le Prince Single-lens Cine Camera, currently on display in our animation gallery, and believed to be the equipment used to film the famous Roundhay Garden and Leeds Bridge scenes, proved to be one of the most ground-breaking inventions of early cinema.

Le Prince Single-lens camera, 1888,  Louis Aime Augustin Le Prince © National Media Museum / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Le Prince Single-lens camera, 1888, Louis Aime Augustin Le Prince © National Media Museum / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Whilst the contraption may appear primitive by today’s standards, utilising paper-backed stripping film, evidence that the equipment was successful in projecting moving images means that Le Prince’s movies pre-date those of Edison and the Lumieres by over half a decade.

In a cruel twist of fate, however, his disappearance meant that the world’s first movie maker never got the chance to accept the plaudits that came with such an achievement during his lifetime, but he’s since been posthumously rewarded his rightful status as the Father of Cinematography.

The first successful moving images in the world were recorded in Yorkshire, and it’s fitting that the equipment used to create them now lives here in Bradford, the world’s first UNESCO City of Film.

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About Kieron J Casey

I work as a Marketing Executive at the National Media Museum by day and spend my evenings usually engrossed in films or, failing that, books about films.

3 comments on “The mystery of Louis Le Prince, the Father of Cinematography

  1. avmckee
    August 29, 2013

    It is so incredibly sad when the first person to create something amazing does not get credit! Thanks.

  2. David Nicholas Wilkinson
    August 30, 2013

    This is why we are making a feature length documentary THE FIRST FILM to rectify this fact !

  3. rhbblog
    October 16, 2013

    Intriguing, thanks – and yay for another Yorkshire first!

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