READING 2.3

IN THEORY

THE VISUAL INTUITION OF LOUIS LUMIÈRE

Mesguich

                   Félix Mesguich

In 1896-97, many views of New York City were taken by one of the Lumières’ premiere cameramen, Félix Mesguich (1871-1949), who later represented the company in both the United States and Russia.[1] In one of these films, a view of an elevated-train station, the most striking feature is the introduction of a moving diagonal—a train that curves from bottom-left toward upper-right along the stationary diagonal formed by background buildings. Because the point of view is also unusually close, the figures of the people who move in and out of the immediate foreground enhance the sense of perspective. A rich contrast also results from the fact that the foreground car is in shade while the preceding car has stopped in sunlight.

Another well-known scene in the Lumière catalogue is among the many taken in London (Figure R2.7). Though conceived largely as self-publicity—a clearly visible theater marquee announces a Lumière screening—it’s also a small masterpiece of patterns of urban movement. While carriages cross the screen left to right in the background and right to left in the foreground, a crowd mills about on the far sidewalk. The passage of a right-bound vehicle provides an opening through which a group of pedestrians crosses the street with the diagonal toward the camera, which is down-left. Immediately, a man with an advertising board crosses in front of them, disappearing down-left just before they do and just as a second group of pedestrians starts straight across the street, left to right against the diagonal.

Promio

    ;          Alexandre Promio

Even more famous is a view shot in Venice in 1896 by another of the Lumières’ chief cameramen, Alexandre Promio (1870?-1927). Promio recalled that “going from the station to my hotel in a boat, I watched the banks recede in front of the gondola, and then I thought that if the immobile cinema could reproduce mobile objects, perhaps one could reverse the proposition and try to reproduce immobile objects with the help of the mobile cinema.”[2] So he took his camera aboard a boat and shot a view of the city as it moved along the canal (Figure R2.7). Although Promio worried that Louis Lumière would reject his innovation, Lumière was so pleased by the effect that he ordered other cameramen to duplicate it. Thus Promio is often credited with the first traveling shot, and as similar views were submitted from operators aboard trains and other vehicles, Lumière catalogs began billing them as “panoramas.”[3]

Louis Lumière had been an avid photographer since his youth and the only operator of the cinématographe while it was still in the experimental stage, and we should not underestimate the extent to which his sense of how to compose moving pictures established a model for his traveling cameramen. In shooting outdoor scenes, Lumière himself usually selects a frame defined by fixed horizontals (roads, streams) and fixed verticals (trees, buildings) and then finds strong diagonals to enhance the depth of field. Often he captures a moving subject as it angles from the foreground to the background or vice versa. Consider, for example, his record of a parade of carriages through some flooded city streets (Figure R2.7). The frame is ready made for Lumière’s composition because a row of buildings beginning in the lower left-hand corner and a crowd-lined curb originating in the lower right curve broadly to the right and around again until the perspective disappears in the upper-left portion of the frame. Quite striking is the rippling of sunlit water, in which the movement of the horse-drawn carriages creates undulating abstract patterns. They lap outward from beneath hooves and wheels but are contained within the natural borders formed by the curbs lining the flooded street.[4]

The Impressionist Sensation

Lumiere

                   Louis Lumière

Lumière’s approach to picture taking was influenced by familiar styles in both photography and painting. In his time, thinking about method and form in both techniques of picture production had already found theoretical common denominators. Photography, of course, could produce only images without color (or, more precisely, without natural color), but contemporary theories of visual representation were important to the photographer as well: in dealing with the properties of color, they dealt with the effects of natural light on the perception of objects and the reproduction of images. The impressionist painters, for example, were interested in flickering “color patches.”

Look at the painting, Claude Monet’s Boulevard des Capucines (1873), in Figure R2.8. “When you go out to paint,” advised Monet, “try to forget what objects you have before you—a tree, a house, a field, or whatever. Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape, until it gives you your own naive impression of the scenes before you.”[5] In thinking about how vision works, Monet, along with certain other painters and theorists of the day, argued that we attend to countless flecks of pure color in order to relish the heightened sensations that are incited by their complementarity—that is, by their tendency to make us see a whole profusion of new colors. This is the way, it was argued, that we see colors and make out colored shapes in the real world.

In turn, it would be the best way for the painter to get the observer to see the image of a world that organizes and presents itself in all its vibrant reality: in reality, the world is ordered but dynamic, and this combination of qualities makes pleasurable, natural sense out of the instantaneous quality of vision. Visually speaking, the world is actually a product of reflected and refracted light producing a vast array of colors. The “object” that the painter paints represents just one of an infinite number of ways in which it might be struck by light, which is continuously changing over time: it’s not the same at dawn, noon, and sunset or in the summer and winter. Thus the effect of the impressionist sensation is to remind us of the fluidity of time in nature.

Giving Life to Space: Movement as Insight

Impressionism, therefore, put a great deal of faith in the power of light to show us the true nature of things. In this respect, says art historian Wylie Sypher, impressionism

was cinematic. . . . The cinema employs the camera artistically, endowing photography with connaissance [that is, the power to understand and inform]. Perhaps the most symbolic change in the arts during the last century is the shift from camera to cinema. What had been only an instrument for reportage became a medium that expressed the time sense and the space sense toward which the whole nineteenth century was drifting. The cinema adds a fourth dimension: space cannot be represented apart from time and motion.[6]

Likewise, note how the following description of Monet’s Boulevard des Capucines compares it with a photograph:

[T]he ultimate effect of the picture could be described as that of an urbanscape photographed through a rather grainy filter, which obliterates linear detail but captures the flickering atmosphere and vitality of the new Paris, bustling along the grand, tree-lined avenues. . . . But unlike the photographers of his era, who could work only in black and white, Monet realized his picture entirely in color. . . . [He] understood that color, like vision itself, is the product of light, broken by reflection and refraction into its component rays, ranging from the warm hues of red and yellow to the cool ones of blue and green.[7]

Color, of course, was unavailable to Louis Lumière the cinematographer. Movement, however, was certainly available to him—indeed, it was his métier—and as a principle for organizing his compositions, he replaced the idea of color changing in time with the idea of movement giving life to space. For Lumière, however, movement in space played the same role that light changing in time played for an impressionist painter such as Monet: it provided imaginative insight into the order underlying the world that we see—a world that presents itself in shifting, fleeting images. (As you can see from Figure R2.9, by the way, color was in fact available to Lumière as a photographer.)

“He Got Them All in Fifty Seconds”

See the moving picture

Carriage

             Louis Lumière, Lyon Quai de

         l'Archêveché—Inondations, 1896

In the hands of Louis Lumière and his itinerant cameramen, moving pictures offered three advantages over painting in demonstrating that this way of presenting things was “realistic”:

  1. Photography imposes logical perspective on spatial relationships.
  2. Photography makes it easier to render three dimensions by means of highlight and shadow.
  3. Because it does not require full, flat-front light on any object in the composition, photography is better able to handle perspectives enhanced by dramatic effects.

Finally, if we think again about Lumière’s film of carriages in flooded streets, we realize that his composition organizes three moving subjects—the flood, the crowd, and the carriages. And, as French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier marvels, “he got them all in fifty seconds. All the films were fifty seconds long . . ., and so he had to deal with a subject in that very limited time.”[8] In addition to everything else, then, this little film provides a good lesson in dynamic economy, and this approach to cinematic material gives visual value to the fixed catalogue of themes—city subjects, tourist sights, and local activities—that appear in the films taken by Lumière cameramen around the world.


[1] See Erik Barnouw, Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1974), pp. 11-15. For a detailed discussion of the process by which Lumière cameramen carried the cinématographe—and exported the cinema—to countries all around the world, see Deac Rossell, Living Pictures: The Origins of the Movies (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1998), pp. 135-39. For a brief account of Mesguich’s career, see Luke McKernan, “Félix Mesguich,” Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema (British Film Institute, 2016), at www.victorian-cinema.net (accessed June 2, 2016). For a discussion of the significance of the views taken by Mesguich in Egypt, see Antonia Lant, “Cinema in the Time of the Pharaohs,” in The Ancient World in Silent Cinema, ed. Pantelis Michelakis and Maria Vyke (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013), esp. pp. 68-71, at http://books.google.com (accessed June 2, 2016). (See Figure 2.22.) Mesguich himself published an invaluable record of his career as a cameraman: Tours de manivelle, souvenirs d’un chasseur d’images (Paris: Bernard Grasset, 1933); for a translated excerpt, see Corbin Treacy and Kevin Riordan, “A Translation from Félix Mesguich’s Tours de manivelle,” Modernism/Modernity 18:2 (2011), pp. 447-48.

[2] Quoted by Miriam Rosen, “Lumière, Louis,” in World Film Directors. Volume I. 1890-1945, ed. John Wakeman (New York: H.W. Wilson, 1987), p. 707.

[3] See Luke McKernan, “Jean Alexandre Louis Promio” (2008), Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema (British Film Institute, 2016), at www.victorian-cinema.net (accessed June 2, 2016). For Figure R2.7: On Promio's use of tracking shots—especially those taken from trains—see Patrick Keiller, “Phantom Rides: The Railway and Early Film,” in The Railway and Modernity: Time, Space and the Machine Ensemble, ed. Michael J. Freeman (New York: Peter Lang, 2007), esp. pp. 73-76, at http://books.google.com (accessed June 2, 2016).

[4] Livio Belloi, “Lumière and His View: The Cameraman’s Eye in Early Cinema—Louis Lumière,” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 15:4 (1995), at orbi.ulg.ac.be (accessed October 24, 2004).

[5] Quoted by Frederick Hartt, Art: A History of Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, 3rd ed. (New York: Henry N. Abrams, 1989), vol. I, p. 844.

[6] Rococo to Cubism in Art and Literature (New York: Vintage, 1960), p. 184. See also Sean Cubitt, “Perceptual Anarchism: Impressionism and the Invention of Cinema,” Digital Aesthetics (London and New York: Sage, 1998), at www.ucl.ac.uk (accessed June 2, 2016).

[7] Sam Hunter and John Jacobus, Modern Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, 3rd ed. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1992), p. 20.

[8] Tavernier narrates The Lumière Brothers’ First Films, prod. The Lumière Brothers Association, ed. Thierry Fremaux (Kino International, 1996).

Back to top

Back to CHAPTER 2