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Alexander Black

Direction - Screenplay - Cinematography | United States of America

The grandfather of the dramatic motion picture was never going to be scientist, but a writer. Alexander Black, a journalist and an avid photographer, understood early on the potential of staging plays with a sequence of photographs to produce in effect a new form of art. Cinema, as we know it today, is genetically as related to the works of Black as it is to the technical discoveries of the likes of Muybridge, Marey, Le Prince or Dickson.

By the late 1800s, photography has developed sufficiently to enter in common use. This growth produced specialists on the subject that could become a good reference point for any amateurs. Alexander Black was one of those specialists, solidified with the publication of his Photography Indoors and Out, a title published when he took over the inaugural presidency of the Department of Photography at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences in 1886. “Probably photography is to-day the most popular of hobbies”[1] – this is how he started his preface, elaborating further on how this new trend has led to the common expectation on using photography to record our daily lives. In effect the medium has gained a documentary function.

Given the longstanding tradition of magic lantern shows dating from the seventeenth century, Alexander Black was the first to trial the use of photographs into producing a new medium that can also give photography an artistic function. His proto-films such as Miss Jerry (1894) or A Capitol Courtship (1897) were just an extension of the magic lantern projections, yet because they contained imagery that was not painted by hand but rather real images of every day life, his works developed a new form of interpretation in the audiences’ psyche. As with novels, the public understood that they needed to fill the gap between each image to achieve a continuum in the story telling act. “The picture plays generated continuing curiosity because they oscillated between the tableau and the film frame, between living pictures and motion pictures, or between an allegiance to pictorial culture and an advocacy of the ‘new’ rhetoric of mechanically recorded bodies in motion”[2]. From this perspective Black’s photo-plays have been critical in exposing the potential of what film can achieve when it is supported by other art forms, such as drama (in his case), or music (in decades to follow). Terry Ramsaye summarised this symbiosis simply by stating: “Edison was science. Black was art. Between them they held in their separated hands the ingredients of the aqua regalis, that universal solvent of expression – the story telling motion picture film”[3].

In his later years, Alexander Black focused more on his writings, becoming a popular novelist, constantly publishing up until his death in 1940. However, early film historians were quick to see his pivotal role in the development of cinema. The picture plays themselves have barely survived to this day, but his legacy stood the test of time, and mainly because he dared to challenge the capacity of an audience to interpret motion even if the image moves at just 4 frames per minute, rather than 24 frames per second.

[1] Black, Alexander. Photography Indoors and Out: A Book for Amateurs; p. iii. Boston – New York: , Houghton, Mifflin and Company - The Riverside Press; 1893.
[2] Askari, Kaveh. Making Movies into Art: Picture Craft from the Magic Lantern to Early Hollywood; p. 42. London: The British Film Institute; 2018.
[3] Ramsaye, Terry. A Million and One Nights: A History of the Motion Picture; pp. 98-99. Abingdon: Frank Case & Co, Ltd; 2006.

Essential Films Canon Winner

Best Direction
Best Screenplay
Best Cinematography


  1. Miss Jerry (1894)

  1. Miss Jerry (1894)

  1. Miss Jerry (1894)

  1. Miss Jerry (1894)

Links: Alexander Black - IMDb - Wikipedia - Amazon