Louis Lumière

The Société Antoine Lumière et fils had ceased all direct operations outside France by the end of 1897, when the cinématographe and the company’s extensive film catalogue were made available for public purchase.[1] Production itself ended in 1905, and within a few years, all the company’s sales rights had been assigned to the firm of Pathé-Frères, whose industrialized mode of producing films had begun flourishing just after the turn of the century.

As for Louis Lumière (1864-1948), he had largely disengaged himself from actual film production in 1896, when he turned his efforts back to the invention end of the photography business. In that year, he patented a combined cinématographe-phonograph capable of simultaneously recording moving pictures and sound. Projecting still panoramic photos through 12 lenses onto a 65-foot circular screen, another invention, the Photorama, which Lumière patented in 1900 and exhibited in 1901-1902, was a forerunner of widescreen projection (see Figure B2.1).[2]

The Pioneer of 3D: Photo-Stéreo-Synthèse


           Louis Lumière, Camera for

          Photostereosynthesis, 1920

Lumière also experimented with a so-called anaglyph process for presenting 3D photographed images, and the preliminary result—a one-shot, one-minute film entitled L'Arrivée d’un train, which shows a train pulling into a railway station (and should not be confused with Arrivée d’un train en gare à la Ciotat)—was presented at the Worlds Fair of 1903. Unfortunately, the process tended to cause visual fatigue and could be viewed by only one person at a time, through a modified stereoscope (an optical instrument for viewing specially produced images through two eyepieces). In 1920, he published a report to the French Academy of Scienes on the feasibility of producing “stereoscopic” photographs.[3]. By the early 1930s, Lumière had developed an improved process for projecting “cinema in relief,” and he shot several “stereo-synthesis” demonstration pieces in Paris, probably in 1935. These short films, along with the original stereoscopic remake of Arrivée d’un train, were shown at a meeting of the French Academy in 1935 and then at a public screening in 1936. The market, however, was not yet ready for stereoscopic, or “3D,” cinema.[4]

In 2010, the Institut Lumière, an educational organization dedicated to conserving the history of French cinema and the Lumières’ contributions to it,[5] teamed with the Cineteca di Bologna, one of Europe’s major archives and conservation facilities, to restore and digitize a series of films from the Lumière catalogue. The resulting program, called Lumière!, was shown publicly in 2010 at the twenty-fourth Il Cinema Ritrovato festival, which exhibits projects from the Cineteca di Bologna and other worldwide restoration institutions, and is screened regularly at the Institut, which opened on the site of the Lumière factory in Lyons in 1982 (see Figure B2.2).

Interestingly, the Lumière imprint has also been left on the upsurge of 3D moviemaking that began in about 2005.[6] In 1926, Louis Lumière and Léon Gaumont, founder of L. Gaumont et cie, one of France's foremost production companies (see Chapter 6.1), established the École nationale supérieure Louis-Lumière (ENS Louis-Lumière—Louis-Lumière National, Film, Photography and Sound Engineering School), which is now one of Europe's most distinguished institutions for the study of cinema technology and practice. The school launched a 3D research and technology program in 2005, and students are currently required to produce a 3D film in order to graduate.


              Martin Scorsese, Hugo, 2011

American director Martin Scorsese, whose 2011 3D film Hugo pays homage to the films of Louis Lumière, has called the ENS Louis-Lumière a “spiritual home” of cinema heritage. Hugo was honored for Best Live-Action 3D Feature, Best Stereoscopy (Live Action), and Best 3D Moment of the Year by the International 3D Society, which calls its awards the “Lumières.”[7] Scorsese later reported that the effort to reproduce the original Arrivée d’un train en gare à la Ciotat in 3D had been a revelation in understanding the Lumière approach to composing a cinematic image in two dimensions: “[W]e converted the Lumière film to 3D,” recalls Scrorsese,

and we combined it with our 3D image, but it didn’t have the same effect [as it did when it startled the first viewers]. We discovered we had to do it in two dimensions within a 3D image, because the composition by the Lumière Brothers was designed to create the illusion of depth within a flat surface. So in essence, the Lumières weren’t just recording events the way they did in Edison’s studio—they were interpreting reality and telling a story with just one angle.[8]

The Pioneer of Color: The Autochrome

In December 1903, Lumière patented a process for “obtaining color photographs,” which he demonstrated to the Academy of Sciences in May 1904. Unlike the cinématographe, which went from patent to mass production in a matter of months, the autochrome process required another four years of refinements before it could be made commercially available. When it was finally rolled out in 1907, the autochrome—which Louis Lumière regarded as his most important invention—was an immediate and durable success, with the factory in Lyon turning out 6,000 plates a day by 1913.[9]

Prior to Lumière’s single-image process, color photography was an extremely complex and laborious medium, usually entailing the superimposition of multiple images taken through color filters. The autochrome process—which used an emulsion made of microscopic potato-starch grains dyed in primary colors—required pictures to be viewed as transparencies or projected color slides, but it remained the only practical means of fixing color images—indeed, the only one on the market—until color film finally appeared in 1935.


             Louis Lumière, Autochrome:

Madeleine, Suzanne et Andrée à travers

                     les vignes en 1908

Although the autochrome does not reproduce realistic color, it produces dark but translucent images in pastel hues that drew the immediate attention of photographers eager to raise photography to the level of fine art. For one thing, the autochrome bore certain affinities to contemporary experiments in painting. For example, because autochrome colors are created from the juxtaposition of millions of microscopic “dots,” they produce an effect similar to that of pointillism, in which the application of bright colors in “flicks” instead of strokes makes intermediary tints more luminous. The edges between darker and lighter areas are clearer, and contrasts of color and shade intensify abrupty, capturing a natural phenomenon that’s also evident in photographs. The American photographer Edward Steichen, who had the opportunity to experiment with the process before it was introduced to the market, declared that “the palette and canvas are a dull and lifeless medium by comparison” with the autochrome.[10] As you can see from Figure B2.3, Louis Lumière himself was one of the first photographers to realize the aesthetic potential of his new invention.[11]

By 1932, Lumière had adapted the principle of the autochrome plate to color film, replacing the potato starch with brewer’s yeast to create an emulsion that permitted not only shaded but moving subjects to be captured in color. He continued trying to adapt his autochrome process to motion-picture film for the next few years (at about the same time that the three-strip Technicolor process was introduced in the United States) but never succeeded in making any commercial applications.

The Scientific Pursuits of Auguste Lumière


        Louis and Auguste Lumière, ca. 1935

While Louis pursued his photography-related interests, Auguste Lumière turned his attention to scientific research in chemistry, biology, and medicine (see Figure B2.4).[12] As early as 1896, he had converted a Lyon hotel into a laboratory for experimental work in physiology and pharmacology. The facility was expanded in 1910 to accomodate the work of more than 150 researchers in such areas as anaphylaxis and tetanus, and Auguste himself applied the experimental findings of his labs to theories about the causes of tuberculosis and cancer and the role of microorganisms in disease. He was also interested in the healing process of wounds, developing new methods of treating wounds among war casualties in 1914-1915. At the same time, he had made himself an expert in x-ray technology, setting up the first x-ray machine in France, in which he used plates manufactured by the Lumière factory in Lyon, where both he and Louis had studied the photographic properties of x-rays since 1896. When he died in 1954, Auguste’s name was on well over a hundred patents.



    Louis Lumière, Cannes Film Festival, 1939

On the fortieth anniversary of the cinématographe, in 1935-1936, Louis Lumière was the subject of commemorations around the world (see Figure B2.5), and when the first Cannes Film Festival was planned for the fall of 1939, he was named honorary president. World War II, however, postponed the inaugural of the festival until 1946, when the 82-year-old Lumière returned to serve as jury president. Today, the 2,300-seat Grand Auditorium Louis Lumière hosts all of the films in competition at the festival, along with the awarding of its grand prize, the Palme d’or.

In 1995, the Bank of France rescinded the printing of 17 million 200-franc banknotes bearing the image of Louis and Auguste Lumière because associations of former World War II Resistance fighters claimed that the brothers (both nearing 80 at the time) had accepted official posts and received awards from the German-installed Vichy government of France. Auguste had in fact served on a committee formed to sponsor groups of French volunteers who fought with the Germans against the Soviet Union. Descendants said that he had been misled about the nature of the organization.

[1] See Miriam Rosen, “Lumière, Louis,” in World Film Directors. Volume I. 1890-1945, ed. John Wakeman (New York: H.W. Wilson, 1987), pp. 707-08; Richard Abel, The Ciné Goes to Town: French Cinema 1896-1914 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California, Press, 1994), pp. 10-11; Alan Williams, Republic of Images: A History of French Filmmaking (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1992), p. 71; Georges Sadoul, “Lumière—The Last Interview,” Sight and Sound 66 (Summer 1948), pp. 68-70; and Stephen Herbert, “Louis Jean Lumière,” Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema (British Film Institute, 2016), at (accessed June 2, 2016). Invaluable to any biographical study of the Lumières is Letters: Auguste and Louis Lumière, ed. Jacques Rittand-Hutinet and Yvelise Dentzer, trans. Pierre Hodgson (London: Faber and Faber, 1995).

[2] See Institut Lumière, “Le Photorama Lumière” [in French], at (accessed June 2, 2016). For a discussion of panorama systems, including the Photorama Lumière, and the commodification of entertainment for middle-class audiences, see Daniel Mourenza Urbina, “Arcades, Phantasmagorias, Panoramas, Films: Walter Benjamin and Early Cinema” [in English], Cine y cultura crítica (May 18, 2010), at (accessed June 2, 2016); in “Ideas of Immersion in Early Cinema,” Cinémas: Journal of Film Studies 14:1 (2003), at, Jan Holmberg anchors a discussion of such “immersive” cinematic technologies as panoramas in the famous anecdote of “primitive” spectators being panicked by the spectacle of an onrushing train (accessed June 2, 2016).

[3] “Répresentation photographique d’un solide dans l’espace. Photo-stéreo-synthèse,” Comptes rendus hebdomadaires des séances de l’académie des sciences 171 (1920), pp. 891-96. The paper was reviewed in America in “Taking Photographs in Relief: Louis Lumière’s New Process of Photo-Stereo-Synthesis,” in Scientific American Monthly, ed. Alexander Russell Bond (New York: Scientific American Publishing Company, 1921), pp. 259-60, at (accessed June 2, 2016).

[4] Lumière reported on his experiments at the Spring 1936 meeting of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers in Chicago: “Stereoscopy on the Screen,” Society of Motion Picture Engineers Journal 27 (1936), pp. 315-20; reprinted in 3-D Cinema and Television Technology: The First Hundred Years, ed. Michael D. Smith, Peter Ludé, and Bill Hogan (White Plains, New York: Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, 2011). See also H. Mark Grosser, Selected Attempts at Stereoscopic Moving Pictures and Their Relationship to the Development of Motion Picture Technology, 1852-1903 (New York: Arno Press, 1977); and Ray Zone, Stereoscopic Cinema and the Origins of 3-D Film, 1838-1952 (Lexington: Univ. Press of Kentucky, 2007), pp. 141-43, at (accessed June 2, 2016).

[5] See Institut Lumière, “The ‘Hangar du Premier-Film,’” at (accessed June 2, 2016).

[6] On the resurgence of 3D cinema, see Thomas Elsaesser, “The ‘Return’ of 3-D: On Some of the Logistics and Genealogies of the Image in the Twenty-First Century,” Critical Inquiry 39 (Winter 2013), pp. 217-46, at (accessed June 2, 2016); and Ian Christie, “Clash of the Wonderlands,” Sight and Sound 21 (November 2011), pp. 36-38, at (accessed June 2, 2016).

[7] See Carolyn Giardina, “‘Hugo’ Tops International 3D Society Awards with Three Trophies,” The Hollywood Reporter (February 2, 2012), at (accessed June 2, 2016).

[8] “Persistence of Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema,” 2013 Jefferson Lecture, National Endowment for the Humanities, April 1, 2013, at (accessed June 2, 2016); revised as “The Persisting Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema,” The New York Review of Books (August 15, 2013), at (accessed June 2, 2016).

[9] On the technology, history, and art of the autochrome, see Bertrand Lavedrine and Jean-Paul Gandolfo et al., The Lumière Autochrome: History, Technology, and Preservation (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2013); Institut Lumière, “Les Autochromes” [in French], at (accessed June 2, 2016); John Wood, The Art of the Autochrome: The Birth of Color (Iowa City: Univ. of Iowa Press, 1993); Thomas Weynants, “Autochromes: The Art of Early Color Photography,” Early Visual Media (2003), at (accessed June 2, 2016). See also Robert M. Poole, “In Living Color,” Smithsonian Magazine (September 2007), at (accessed June 2, 2016); and Mark Antman, “The Autochrome: 100 Years of Color Photography,” The Picture Professional 2 (2007), at (accessed June 2, 2016).

[10] Quoted by Poole, “In Living Color.”

[11] See Institut Lumière, “Les Autochromes.” See also Institut Lumière—Famille Lumière, Centennial Series Calendar 2003: Louis Lumière (Ilford, Switzerland: Ilford Imaging Ltd., 2003), at (accessed June 2, 2016).

[12] See Stephen Herbert, “Auguste Marie Nicolas Lumière,” Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema (British Film Institute, 2016), at (accessed June 2, 2016); Bruno Salazard et al., “Auguste and Louis Lumiere, Inventions at the Service of the Suffering,” European Journal of Plastic Surgery 28:7 (February 2006), at (accessed July 2, 2011).

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