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Essential Films
Chapter 2

 

Roundhay Garden Scene
Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince
160 Woodhouse Lane, Leeds / UK / 1888

Starring Harriet Hartley, Adolphe Le Prince, Joseph Whitley, Sarah Whitley


Ion Martea
posted 5 May 2006

Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince was a good provincial artist. Some of his paintings can still be seen in museums in France, UK and the USA. However, by now, they are often exhibited less for their artistic merit, than merely as a historical record to testify to the existence of the author - the barely ever mentioned inventor of motion pictures.

A chemistry and mathematics graduate, Le Prince was quickly caught by the hysteria of producing moving images, a trend dating back to 1870s. He received a US patent for animated pictures panorama exhibitions in 1886, while he also devised a sixteen-lens camera, then a three-lens camera, and by 1888, he was able to test the effectiveness of his single lens camera.

In October 1888, his parents in law, Joseph and Sarah Whitley, his son, Adolphe Le Prince, and a family friend, Miss Hartley, all gathered in the family garden at Roundhay, on the outskirts of Leeds. Le Prince desired to capture movement, and so everyone was asked to walk around, dance and laugh. A few weeks later, he would make a second test, known as Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge (Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince / UK / 1888). Both films preceded the appearance of celluloid as an adequate film material, and were taken by unpatented machinery (unless a clause on the three-lens camera in the British patent can be spuriously considered). Le Prince's own disappearance in 1890 only obscured his work even further.

Watching Roundhay Garden Scene remains a thrilling experience that haunts the viewer, despite the fact that it was taken on primitive Eastman paper strips. Le Prince's background in photography and panorama shows is evident in the frame composition, allowing us to grasp not only the movement of each individual, but also to get a strong awareness of time and place. The key is in the conception of the film image as a reproduction of an image caught by the human eye. The focus of our attention falls on the two young actors (Le Prince and Hartley), but they are positioned in such a way that the Whitleys are not seen as random prop pieces (simply to supply more action), but rather as connections to the external environment

In consequence, Le Prince's film seems to aim not at the simple depiction of motion, but at the reproduction of a live image as seen from one point of view by a human being. The specificity of this concept provides the major clue as to why the French-born inventor was not so much interested in the success of his single lens camera, concentrating his attention mostly on the three-lens machine. The vast background does not serve as a mere still artificial tableau against which motion can be performed, but is aimed at delivering a sense of reality, so that the spectator is immersed in the picture.

In his admirable research of Le Prince's disappearance, The Missing Reel, Christopher Rawlence discovered that one of the major reasons the inventor hid his work was his fear of being laughed at. The concept of the single lens camera, still used today as the main form of film production, did provide a reasonably good reproduction of life, but this was not what the maverick was looking for. The three-lens camera was more suited for his idea of what film should be able to capture, primarily because it imitated human vision, capable not only of grasping three-dimensionality within a flat tableau, but also creating the illusion of an all-surrounding three-dimensionality. In 1888, Le Prince knew that he was not working on the same wavelength as Muybridge, Marey or Friesse-Greene, but was already trying to fight against André Bazin's 'myth of total cinema', a term not coined till the late 1960s. Ironically, the inventor's perfectionism led to his own disappearance from mainstream film history for over a century.

However, beyond the director's vision, Roundhay Garden Scene is an interesting work among the early pieces. The use of Eastman paper strips was a pragmatic choice, due to the lack of adequate celluloid, but it does not obscure the clarity of the image, which is still rather crisp even by today's standards. In a few seconds, Le Prince managed to capture more than just a random shot of people in motion.

A closer look at the procession opens a rich canvas establishing a story through the emotions expressed by the four protagonists. We notice a feeling of unease mingled with carelessness in the body language of John Whitley, and a quiet resignation in trying to keep the procession unbroken in Sarah Whitley's turn - leaving the youth and following her husband; akin to Mrs Ramsey in Virginia Wolf's To the Lighthouse, too old to entertain the young ones, yet not ready to give it up. (Mrs Whitley died soon after the shooting of the film on 24 October 1888). Then there are Hartley and Adolphe Le Prince. Even though there is nothing to testify an amorous bond between the two, it is quite interesting to speculate on Adolphe's enthusiasm at the sight of the young Harriet (Annie Hartley in Rawlence's book). Miss Hartley, slightly modest and prim, is still waiting for the boy to approach, slightly ignoring Mrs Whitley's call. The film thus appears less a historical document, but rather a home documentary, watching objectively, yet allowing us to intrude within a family bond, united by love, separated by the complex relationships among its members.

The achievement is unique for the early period, as on this occasion the camera is positioned in such a way that we do not feel its presence. There are no thrills to make us aware of it: no trains hurtling towards us, no looks to acknowledge the film process, no over-reactions brought by the desire to be seen in a certain way. Everything is played in front of our eyes in such a way that we feel there is no need for a spectator. This is what brings Roundhay Garden Scene close to Le Prince's vision. The spectator is given a sense of intruding into someone's life that was considered unachievable for millennia. Life is reproduced for us and we are part of it, not of course as participants to the action, but as active voyeurs.

The relatively limited success of IMAX cinemas proves the difficulty even now of pursuing Le Prince's perfectionism. Arguably, we would need a Star Trek 'Holodeck' in order to be able to reproduce a three-dimensional experience in which the spectator is an active player. However, this would imply the death of artistic authorship, as each individual could change the story according to the mood present at the moment of creation. Artistic intentionality and the possibility of constructing a conscious course of action, which is also lasting and identical, are the two attributes which Le Prince achieved in 1888 and film, as an artform, has adopted until the present day.

Film narrative has developed in various ways over the years, achieving an illusion of reality by presenting stories that appear real. However, they all share the same traits achieved through performance and camera positioning by Le Prince in Roundhay Garden Scene. If engagement is equivalent to the illusion of reality, then Le Prince might have realised in 1888 that it was worth commercialising his single lens camera, instead of wasting more time on the three-lens apparatus, whose aims are still unachievable to this day. But then, he was living at a time in which psychology and psychoanalysis were barely conceived, and thus quite foreign to a technical inventor.


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