Auguste Lumière (1862-1954) and his brother Louis Lumière (1864-1948) became very wealthy in their early twenties thanks to their invention of a machine that could mass-produce photographic gelatin dry-plates. Their factory in Lyon, France, quickly became one of the largest in Europe and their dry-plates became a best-selling product because they made the profession and hobby of photography much more convenient than it had ever been before. Suddenly more or less anybody could take pictures, not just highly skilled professional photographers.
In 1894, their father (who by the way was both a portrait painter and a professional photographer) returned from a trip to America and told them about a new technology he had seen there, Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope, a mechanized box that a person could look into and see pictures that appeared to be moving. Louis Lumière improved on this by making a machine that could project a moving image onto a screen so it could be seen by many people at once. His machine, the Cinematograph, was a light-weight self-contained camera and projector which was patented in 1895.
The Villa Lumière is now a museum about the beginnings of the motion picture. The first thing I did there was to take a guided tour (in French) by a knowledgeable young man who showed us a replica of Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope and then Louis Lumière’s Cinematograph, which served both as a camera and a projector.
We also saw some examples of early films made by the Lumière brothers, including The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, a fifty-second film which allegedly caused a panic among the first spectators because they thought the steam locomotive was really coming towards them.
A hundred years later the Lumière Institute invited dozens of prominent film directors to make short films of their own using an original Cinematograph machine from the 1890s. The results can be seen in a viewing room in the basement of the Lumière Museum, including a film made in the 1990s of an express train going through the station at La Ciotat without stopping, taken from the same angle and with the same machine as the original film.
Just down the block from the Villa Lumière is the “Hangar of the First Film”, where Auguste and Louis Lumière first tried out their new Cinematograph machine.
At the time this Hangar was the main building of the Lumière factory for mass-producing photographic plates. To make their first film the Lumière brothers set the Cinematograph machine up on a tripod in front of the Hangar and filmed the workers (mainly women in long skirts or dresses, but also a few men with bicycles and a horse-drawn wagon) as they came out of the factory after work. Actually there are three different versions of this, taken at different times of year, with slight differences such as the number of horses (two, one or none) and whether or not there is a dog in the picture.
The first public showing of this and nine other short films by the Lumière brothers was in Paris at the Grand Café on the Boulevard des Capucines in 1895.
Soon after that, the Lumières started hiring and training “operators” who travelled to different parts of the world and made short documentary films (all less than one minute) showing for example a street scene in Saigon or camels walking in the desert in Africa. These “views” were then shown to paying audiences all over Europe by the same “operators” or by concessionaires who split the proceeds 50/50 with the Lumière company.
This was a thriving business in the late 1890s, but soon the novelty started to wear off and the Lumières withdrew from active film-making, though their company remained one of the leading suppliers of film equipment and materials.
According to the Lumière Institute website, the Lumière company produced at least 1408 short films between 1895 and 1905. The negatives of all these films were carefully preserved, so they still exist today.
The Hangar is now used by the Lumière Institute as a cinema where they show classic films from various epochs of the history of filmmaking, mainly from the 1930s to the 1970s.
Sad footnote: Both Auguste and Louis Lumière were still alive during the Second World War, and they both made themselves unpopular in France by coming out in favor of the collaborationist Vichy regime of Marshal Pétain. In addition, Louis admired the Italian Fascists and Auguste supported the “Legion of French Volunteers” who fought on the side of the Nazis. None of this was mentioned on the tour of Villa Lumière, but I have the impression that the Lumière brothers’ reputation in France has never really recovered.
My photos in this post are from 2011. I revised the text in 2017.
See also: By train to Toulon, about the Lumière brothers’ La Ciotat film.