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1. Capturing reality

October 3, 2009

Man is a strange creature. We live in a world that leaves a huge impression on us, and we always seek to manifest and replay this impression. We enjoy watching others as they show us their take on reality, be it the objective or subjective reality. This has been an ongoing custom since cave paintings. Man sat in his dwelling, by the flickering light of the hearth and painted or engraved how he killed the bull to feed his family. His tribe and successors kept track of history and were able to identity as a collective through these illustrations and the stories connected to them. What has changed? Not much really…
The technical methods of capturing and reproducing reality or the interpretation of it have changed a great deal, but not the telling of the story itself.
We strive to capture reality and confine it to some sort of medium as if the medium would thereby be an evidence for the existence of reality itself. Reality becomes real by manifesting it on a cave wall, a canvas, glass plates or celluloid. And by manifesting reality we also manifest ourselves and our part in reality. By reproducing the moment we changed reality, we show not least ourselves that we are real and not just a thought.
I intentionally left CGI (computer generated images) out of this, because they are not so much about showing reality as they often show things that are ”larger that life.”

Through the ages we have developed and refined many techniques to capture moments that left an impression. For a long time painting the moment and place was the way to go, but after the start of the industrial revolution we changed. Our new knowledge of engineering sparked the wish for a new high-tech medium able to produce more refined images without the filter of the artists feeling towards the motif and the processing that inevitably takes place.

Seeing clearly
On March 7th, 1765 a boy was born who would change the world and our concept of it forever through his invention.
Joseph Nicephore Niépce was born in Chalon-sur-Saône, France as one of four children to a royal counsellor. He studied physics and chemistry in Angers and later joined the national guard. After the revolution he and his brother, Claude, used their knowledge to make great inventions, like for example the so-called Pyreolophore, the worlds first internal combustion engine, as one of many things.
After experimenting with lithography and trying to fix images projected to the back of the camera obscura he succeeded in preserving an image of a landscape on a sheet of tin in 1827. This picture still exists today.
Niépce partners with fellow chemist and multi talented artist Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre and together they develope a process based on the photosensitive properties of lavender oil. The process is named ”Physautotype”.
The partnership is abruptly ended by Niépce’s sudden death January 5th 1833.

Niépce’s surviving photo from 1827

Daguerre did not let the incident stop him and kept experimenting with different metals and chemical processes. In 1839 he was finally able to announce that he had perfected the process, hereafter called the daguerreotype process, after barely out running the british William Fox Talbot and his calotype process.
Pictures were projected onto a light sensitive medium and mercury vapors would stick to the highlight areas of the photo, thus leaving the shadow areas dark and thereby producing an image.

Daguerrotype of Abraham Lincoln taken by Nicolas Shepherd 1846

Running with the horses
In the year 1878 a man originally named Edward James Muggeridge, later renamed Eadweard Muybridge, helped former Governor of California Leland Stanford prove a point. Stanford had bet that while in a gallop all four hooves of a horse will at a certain point leave ground. Muybridge proved this fact by installing 24 stereoscopic cameras 21 inches apart, covering the 20 feet he needed for the horse to complete the motion. When later arranged, the horse seemed to be running and this was the birth of motion pictures.

Muybridges connected images of the running horse
Muybridges connected images of the running horse

The film generally considered the oldest surviving motion picture is Louis le Prince’s Roundhay Garden Scene from 1888.

Meanwhile the great inventor Thomas Edison was busy working on different aspects of the new medium. William Kennedy Laurie Dickson of Edison Laboratories is credited as the inventor of the celluloid strip while Edison also developed the Kinetoscope. The Kinetoscope was a box where an electric motor would continuous loop a strip of film that was backlit by a lamp. The viewer would see the movie individually through an eye piece. Edison set up Kinetoscope parlours and people were able to see recordings of acrobats and musicians.

Edisons Kinetoscope
Edisons Kinetoscope

Movies for the masses
The british electrician, Robert W. Paul had the excellent idea, and I’m sure you’ll agree, to show movies for a crowd instead of viewing them individually.

February 12th 1892 the french inventor Léon Bouly received the patent to his invention, the Cinématographe, a device able to record, print and project images. Unfortunately one year later he was unable to pay the rent for his patent and the Lumiere brothers Auguste and Louis bought the patent.
December 28th 1895 August and Louis set up what is mostly referred to as the first private presentation of motion pictures. The Salon Indien du Grand Café in Paris became the worlds first cinema. The presentation consisted of ten short films including their first called

Sortie des Usines Lumière à Lyon (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon).

Auguste and Louis Lumiere
Auguste and Louis Lumiere

And this was the start of movies as we know them… almost. I’ll explain about the transition to sound films in the next post.
I hope you have enjoyed this ”quick” skip through the technical innovations that lead up to the actual motion picture. I’ll leave you with a couple of links for further readings.

The first ten Lumiere films can be viewed at:

More info about Niépce:

More info about Muybridge:

Wikipedia on Thomas Edison:

Info about the Lumieres and Victorian cinema:

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