After the success of their first screenings in 1895, Auguste and Louis Lumière sent their representatives out into the world to shoot images and project them on the spot. Alexandre Promio (1868-1926) was one of the first of these opérateurs dispatched by the brothers. From early 1896 onwards, he started work and travelled all over the world to film all types of scenes with the help of the cinematograph: from Queen Victoria’s funeral procession in London to images of artillery in Spain, from police parades in Chicago to the hustle and bustle of downtown Brussels. These recordings were not labelled as “images” but rather as “vues animées”, which can be translated as “moving views”. Rather than a new art form, cinematography was initially conceived as “photography plus movement”. Thus cinema came into being, as Maurice Bardèche and Robert Brasillach write in their history of silent film, “with newsreels [actualités], as the natural development of the postcard, just as genre scenes form an extension of the family album.”1
In 1925, in his Histoire du cinématographe: de ses origines à nos jours, George-Michel Coissac published a long excerpt from Promio’s Carnet de route. In this travelogue, Promio describes how the miracle of cinematography was welcomed with amazement and enthusiasm in every corner of the world. According to Philippe Chevalier, there is certainly no film theorist to be found in these notes, but rather “a thinker, especially when he describes one of the first tracking shots in film history.”2 In Venice, the Lumière brothers’ agent came up with the idea of filming the City of Water from inside a gondola. Unlike other shots, in which a fixed camera captures objects in motion, he realises that movement is now created by the device itself sliding over Venice’s immobile facades. Aware of this drastic shift, he sends over his recording to Lyon for approval. “The response was positive.”
In June 1895, I had the good fortune to attend the first screening of animated projections set up in Lyon by Mr. Louis Lumière, at the end of the Congrès de photographie. Like everyone else, I was amazed and, from that moment on, I made every effort to be introduced to Mr. Auguste and Mr. Louis Lumière. Thanks to the intermediary of Mr. Pascal, whom I had known at La Martinière, I had the honour of entering into the service of these gentlemen at the beginning of 1896.
First of all, I got acquainted with the new device, then these gentlemen entrusted me with training the staff that were to be sent to the posts set up in France and abroad. At that time, there were only a very small number of printed reels, shot by Mr. Louis Lumière himself; but this very modest stock was well seen to be insufficient, and after having had me make a few trial shots, Mr. Louis Lumière asked me to go on a trip, with the objective of collecting new views [vues], as quickly as possible, to supply the demands.
My first trip was to Spain. I was somewhat moved. I felt very lonely, completely on my own, and I dreaded a failure. A telegram from Lyon, after my first shipments, was an important encouragement; I gained confidence and continued the journey with less concern.
In Madrid, the cinema was the indirect cause of a small revolution at the Royal Palace. I had asked the Queen Regent, through the Marshal of the Palace, for the necessary authorizations to operate in the barracks or on the training grounds, in order to record scenes of cavalry, infantry, etc. With the utmost good grace, the sovereign had granted everything I asked for. At the moment of dealing with the artillery, not wanting to be satisfied with a banal parade, I expressed to the marshal my desire to see artillery pieces in action. He raised his arms to the sky and told me that he would not be in charge of conveying such a request and that I had to be satisfied with what had been granted. I insisted, however, and forty-eight hours later I was informed that the Queen had given orders for six pieces to be supplied with two cartridges, much to the astonishment of the officers, who had to admit that the Lumière cinematograph had an enormous influence on the rulers.
Back from Spain, via Bordeaux, I left for England, where I returned several times, notably for the funeral of Queen Victoria. I had rented a window on the route of the procession at an exorbitant price and was lucky enough to be able to film a couple of reels of this ceremony, using two instruments placed side by side, an assistant supplying the first one with blank film while I operated the second device. The Société Lumière was the only one to have animated views of this procession.
In London, the screenings took place at the Empire Theatre. Eight reels were projected, which were announced and commented on by a speaker. The success was unheard of; the theatre was packed. And for a show that lasted no more than 12 minutes, the Lumière cinematograph operator received £300 per week. (Although, at that time, the British pound would not have reached the dizzying heights we are now seeing, each performance was paid 1,350 francs, or about 100 francs a minute.)
The next trip took place in Belgium and then Sweden. In Stockholm, the inauguration of the World Expo was solemnly made by King Oscar at 11 o’clock in the morning. In the laboratories of Mr. Numa Peterson, I developed, in two buckets, the negative that I had imprinted during the ceremony; I dried it quickly and then drew, developed and dried a positive under the same conditions. Thus, I was able to project it, at 7 o’clock in the evening, before the astonished and delighted sovereign.
Only the reversibility of the Lumière device could allow for this little surprise.
I have little to say about my trip to Turkey, apart from the great difficulty I had to introduce my camera [appareil de prise de vues]. At that time, in Abdul Hamid’s Turkey, any instrument with a crank was suspicious; it was necessary to call in the French embassy and then even a few coins skilfully forgotten in the hand of some official, to obtain unhindered entry. At last I was able to operate in Constantinople, Smyrna, Jaffa, Jerusalem, etc.
It was in Italy that I first had the idea of making panoramic views [vues panomariques]. When I arrived in Venice and went by boat from the train station to my hotel on the Grand Canal, I watched the banks fleeing in front of the gondola, and I thought that if the immobile cinema allows us to reproduce moving objects, then perhaps we could turn the proposal around and try to reproduce immobile objects as mobile with the help of the cinema. I immediately made a reel that I sent to Lyon with a request to tell me what Mr. Louis Lumière thought of this experiment. The response was positive.
Being in Germany, I found myself in Bremen on a Sunday. My morning had been taken up by operations that had absorbed the contents of my small supply magazines. However, I had a 3 o’clock appointment with the head of a pioneer regiment that I had to film while crossing a river. All the photoshops were closed. What could I do? In a very large street in Bremen, I saw a shop open: it was a coffin merchant who, as everyone knows, are in this country of enormous proportions.
I explained to the merchant that I needed one of these funerary boxes for a few minutes, in order to find the darkness necessary to load three magazines. Having obtained permission, I went to the hotel and came back with blank film. I lay down in this improvised darkroom, put the blank film on my left side, the supply magazines on the right and the small rewinder on my chest. We closed the lid and everything went as smoothly as possible.
In similar circumstances, I had to resort to makeshift means in Geneva. Being inside the World Expo, where I had taken quite a few shots, without thinking about the risk of running out of film, I did indeed find myself in the presence of an interesting image [vue], but no longer having any film.
This time it was a large tun from Nancy at the Fruhinsolz house that replaced the absent darkroom. With one of the ends removed, I crouched down in the barrel, which was closed again, and loaded my magazines, not without a good bend; then I ran to point my lens.
If, in France and in Europe, the appearance of the Lumière cinematograph had provoked the greatest enthusiasm, what could I say about what I experienced in the United States? This country knew of animated photography only as much as Edison’s tests with his Kinetoscope, an individual camera whose results were not very satisfactory. So, when the projections were made in one of the halls of the Kleith theatres in New York, it was, at the same time as a triumph, a real revelation.
I was surrounded by a swarm of journalists – because there, publicity is the most important thing in life. I was asked for a lot of details, portraits of Auguste and Louis Lumière, and as I didn’t have any copies, my head (taken at the hotel by a reporter, with a great deal of flash-powder) was put straight on the front page of the newspapers with this title: “The manager of the Lumière’s Kinematograph”.
I couldn’t take a step in the city without being followed by a crowd eager to get caught in a scene and then see themselves on the screen. How many times did I shoot with empty magazines, in front of people who came to camp less than two metres from the camera?
I left New York for Chicago, without telling anyone it was my new destination. But no sooner had I checked into the Chicago Auditorium Hotel than I was handed the visiting cards of two reporters...
I visited the official in Chicago who performs functions similar to those of the prefect of the Paris police force. I asked his permission to shoot some animated sequences of the police and firemen of that city. At first, he turned a deaf ear, but when I explained to him that this was the Lumière cinema and that the reels I wanted to take would be shown all over the world, along with the views of the police in London, the firemen in Belfast, and Paris, his face relaxed and he gave me an appointment for the next day. At the appointed time, I was astonished to find more than 5,000 policemen and firemen gathered in Michigan Avenue, whom I paraded as I wished, in different outfits and at the pace I indicated.
The director of the theatre where our views were projected sent me an invitation with a box ticket for me to attend the evening. I accepted, and in the evening I went to the show where a whole box on the ground floor was reserved for me. The program continued without incident, and then it was time for the cinema. As in England, the views were presented by an announcer. I later learned that that evening it was the director himself who took care of this. Now, between the fourth and fifth view, he spoke as follows: “Ladies and gentlemen, the representative of Messrs. Lumière, the illustrious inventors of the cinematograph, has just arrived in our town, and I make it my pleasant duty to introduce him to you.” The darkness came, and without my having had time to make a gesture, I found myself violently illuminated by a projector placed in the galleries, whose rays of light had been pre-set in advance on the square assigned to me. And applause burst out everywhere.
The public’s infatuation with cinema was something unheard of. You have to have lived through the first hours of these screenings to realize the effect produced. However, these were only small strips, few in number, lacking fixity because the drive fingers acted directly on the film, without the help of a feed roller...
Danse au bivouac (Alexandre Promio, 1896) | Madrid, Spain [camp de Vicálvaro]
Enfants pêchant des crevettes (Alexandre Promio, 1896) | England
Les pyramides (vue générale) (Alexandre Promio, 1897) | Giza, Egypt
Panorama du Grand Canal pris d’un bateau (Alexandre Promio, 1896) | Venice, Italy
Broadway (Alexandre Promio, 1896) | New York, United States
Défilé de policemen (Alexandre Promio, 1896) | Chicago, United States
- 1Maurice Bardèche and Robert Brasillach, Histoire du cinéma. I. Le cinéma muet (Paris: Les sept couleurs, 1964).
- 2Antoine de Baecque and Philippe Chevallier (eds.), Dictionnaire de la pensée du cinéma (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2012).
This travelogue originally appeared in Georges-Michel Coissac, Histoire du cinématographe: de ses origines à nos jours (Paris: Éditions du Cinéopse, 1925).