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Friday
Apr062018

Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge (1888)


Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince | United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland | 1888


In the history of early film, the cinematic output of Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince is of a seminal value. His Roundhay Garden Scene (1888) is the first film shot with a single-lens camera, but many historians and film critics still consider the twenty frames of Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge as the most important of his works. The unobtrusively elegant documentary style and the outstanding quality of the images (even by today’s standards) make the short film stand out among its contemporaries.

In an attempt to establish the film’s historicity, Christpher Rawlence believes that the experimental work shows that “Leeds was doing business with much the same bustling energy as it does today. Carts and wagons were moving in and out of the city. A man was crossing the road, urgently threading his way through the traffic. On the pavement, two more men were leaning over the parapet of the bridge, deep in conversation. One was smoking a pipe. Beneath them the brown river slid eastwards”[1]. Rawlence does the film justice with his eloquent synopsis, expressing both the energy of the action, as well as the poetic mood one finds in its encounter.

The setting for the film was chosen by Le Prince “because it provided action”[2]. The building from which the sequence was shot was still around when Rawlence came to visit it in the late 1980s. He established that “give or take the odd traffic light and hoarding, the view was the same as it had been a century earlier when Le Prince had filmed the midday traffic”[3]. This rare opportunity to return to the action scene allowed historians to establish beyond reasonable doubt that the director could have only used his unpatented single-lens camera in the exercise. This, in return, would make Le Prince the winner in the race of filming moving images. His “experiments in cinematography were revolutionary and remain controversial to this day”[4].

However, lovers of cinema return to Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge long after the historical curiosity is satisfied. The key to this is the style of film-making. Documentary film-makers have always tried to maintain a right balance between the representation of reality and the dramatic effect within their work. The challenge is to always find the most adequate footage that happens to be both faithful to the events as they took place, as well as interesting in the context of artistic authorship. Many would argue that early film was outstanding in the way it teaches modern film-makers on how to achieve this. However, at closer inspection, there are actually very few works in the early cinematic canon that manage to strike the equilibrium.

The famous works by Louis Lumière, such as Employees Leaving the Lumière Factory (La sortie de l'usine Lumière à Lyon | 1895) or The Photographical Congress Arrives in Lyon (Neuville-sur-Saône: Débarquement du congrès des photographes à Lyon | 1895), or the plethora of indoor shots from William K.L. Dickson and William Heise at the Black Maria Studio in West Orange, New Jersey – all have had their share of staging for the camera. The so called ordinary individuals are found to be aware of the act of being filmed. That same awareness leads then to an unintentional distortion of events.

On the other hand, there are the natural sequences that are void of human presence, such as Rough Sea at Dover (1895) by Birt Acres and Robert W. Paul. These films manage to escape the ‘acting’ challenge described above. What they do possess is the dramatic power of nature as captured within the frame of the camera. Here the director becomes the one to choose the right sequence, to identify whether an image is worth shooting at all. In turn, this creative intentionality leads the spectator into a false sense of knowledge. The image presented, albeit faithful in its reproduction of events, suffers from a pre-set expectation of what one is about to witness. This quality is essential into creating powerful works of art, but then it hinders the possibility of viewing an image in its unintended purity.

Finding the right balance between reality and art within the context of the film image appears to be an insurmountable problem. However, Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge appears to have overcome it. First of all, Le Prince was lucky that the positioning of the camera did not allow the expectation of being photographed. The distance between the subjects and the cinematic eye was thus wide enough to allow impartiality between the two players. Secondly, Le Prince did not truly know what his experiment would have come to. The traffic on Leeds Bridge is framed to allow for the widest view on the action, and yet the lack of director’s expectation on the result of the image make the chosen shot appear arbitrary. What we seem to get as a result is a simple footage, similar to those obtained with the aid of CCTV cameras. The fact that the camera was positioned strategically by an artist does give the film a certain artistic quality, similar to that in Andy Warhol’s Empire (1965). Le Prince therefore could be considered to have found a happy medium between reality and art.

In spite of the argument, Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge is still not a great work of art. It is a successful trial for Le Prince’s single-lens camera, a trial that has managed to enter our consciousness through its age. The film has a romantic quality to it, driven mainly by the nature of how events are being captured. But, the film still does not manage to go close enough to achieving full artistic authorship. Arguably, through the nature of novelty, Le Prince would not have known how to achieve it either. All he knew is that he was at the brink of an important discovery. “‘Moving pictures will solve our money worries’, he wrote to Lizzie”[5], his wife, before his disappearance. The film gave him confidence that he was approaching to a goal, but he did not know what that goal meant in the long term. In retrospect, Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge shows us how revolutionary his discovery was, but the image, though important in the history of film, is as ordinary as any passing above the river Aire.


[1] Rawlence, Christopher. The Missing Reel: The Untold Story of the Lost Inventor of Moving Pictures; p. 240. London: Collins, 1990.
[2] Thurlow, Max; Thurlow, Clifford. Making Short Films: The Complete Guide from Script to Screen, third edition; p. 394. London - New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.
[3] Rawlence, Christopher. The Missing Reel: The Untold Story of the Lost Inventor of Moving Pictures; p. 239. London: Collins, 1990.
[4] Dixon, Wheeler Winston; Foster, Gwendolyn Audrey. A Short History of Film, second edition; p. 5. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2013.
[5] Coller, Jeremy; Chamberlain, Christine. The Lives, Loves and Deaths of Splendidly Unreasonable Inventors; p. 162. Oxford: Infinite Ideas Limited, 2009.

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