Credited as the ‘Father of Cinematography’, Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince (1841-1890, declared dead 1897) was a French artist and inventor of the motion picture. However, the notoriety of his brilliant invention is on a par with the circumstances of his mysterious life: just a month before he was due to unveil his creation with world, he disappeared forever.
Theories from murder to suicide were proposed as an explanation, all of which failed to unearth any new information.
Le Prince’s death had a further negative impact: though he was the first to make a working model which captured motion outside his home in Leeds, he was never properly credited with the invention of the motion picture. Instead, Thomas Edison and the Lumière brothers dominated headlines for decades for inventing the equipment which made the moving image possible.
So who was Louis Le Prince? Why did he disappear, and how was he eventually credited as the ‘Father of Cinematography’?
He was taught by Louis Daugerre
Le Prince was born in 1841 in Metz, France. Known as Augustin (Gus to English friends), his father was a major in the French army. His father’s friend, Louis Daguerre, who is known for his invention of the daguerreotype portrait, taught Le Prince photography and chemistry from his studio.
Le Prince went on to study painting and post-graduate chemistry in Paris and Leipzig University respectively. After university, he moved to England.
He and his wife founded an art school
In 1869, he married Elizabeth Whitley, a talented artist. Together, they established a school of applied art, the Leeds Technical School of Art, and together became renowned for their work in fixing coloured photographs onto metal and pottery.
He filmed what is thought to be the first moving film
During the 1880s, Le Prince became interested in helping to develop fledgling cinematic technologies. In 1886, he created a 16-lens camera and applied for an American patent, which he was granted in early 1888. He also received a British patent for the invention that same year.
In 1888, Le Prince built a single-lens camera in his workshop in Leeds. He used the camera to shoot his motion picture films. The first use of the camera was on 14 October 1888 to shoot what became known as the ‘Roundhay Garden Scene’, and a sequence of his son playing the accordion.
He later used the same camera to film road traffic and pedestrians crossing Leeds Bridge, from a site which is now marked with a commemorative Blue plaque in his honour. This camera has since been recognised as one of the most groundbreaking inventions of early cinema, and demonstrates that Le Prince’s movies pre-date those of Edison and the Lumières by more than half a decade.
He disappeared mysteriously
In September 1980, Le Prince was preparing to travel to the United States, reportedly to publicly premiere his work. Before the journey, he decided to return to France and visit his brother in Dijon. On 16 September, he took a train to Paris, but missed his friends in the city as he had taken a later train than planned.
He was never seen again. The last person to see Le Prince was his brother at the station in Dijon. Though the French police, Scotland Yard and the family undertook extensive searches, they never found him. In 1897, Le Prince was officially declared dead.
A number of theories have been proposed about why he disappeared
Various theories – some wild – have been proposed as to why Le Prince vanished. One of the most popular is that he was assassinated as part of a ‘patent war’, likely by Edison or an accomplice. This is because Le Prince was about to patent his 1889 projector in the UK then leave for Europe and the US. This theory was held by Le Prince’s widow, though it is unsubstantiated.
It has also been suggested that Le Prince’s disappearance was ordered by his family because he was gay, with various theorists suggesting that he actually died in Chicago in 1898. However, this is also unsubstantiated.
In 1890, a drowned man was pulled from the Seine who bore a strong resemblance to Le Prince. However, the photograph of the drowned man was only discovered in 2003 in the Paris police archives. This has led to many suggesting that he failed to get his moving picture to work, and overwhelmed with heavy debts, took his own life. It has, however, been claimed that the body discovered was too short to be Le Prince.
He has been posthumously recognised
In 1898, a year after Le Prince was declared dead, his elder son Adolphe was called as a witness for the American Mutoscope Company in their litigation with Edison. The Le Prince family had hoped that in citing Le Prince’s achievements, they might annul Edison’s claims that he had invented the moving-picture camera. However, they were unsuccessful. Two years later, Adolphe was found dead.
In 1894, Edison was credited in the US as the inventor of motion pictures, while in France the Lumière Brothers were hailed as inventors of the Cinématographe device, and the hosts of the first commercial exhibition of motion-picture films in 1895.
However, in Leeds, Le Prince is celebrated as a local hero. In 1930, a bronze memorial tablet was unveiled at his former workshop, and a department at Leeds University was named after him. In France, an appreciation society called L’Association des Amis de Le Prince (Association of Le Prince’s Friends) was created, and still exists in Lyon.