The French inventing team of brothers Auguste Lumière (1862-1954) and Louis Lumière (1864-1948) was responsible for a number of practical improvements in photography and motion pictures. Their work on color photography resulted in the Autochrome process, which remained the preferred method of creating color prints until the 1930s. They also applied their technological talents to the new idea of motion picture photography, creating the first projection system that allowed a film to be seen by more than one person at a time.
Auguste and Louis Lumière were pioneers in the improvement of photographic materials and processes in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Using their scientific abilities and business talents, they were responsible for developing existing ideas in still photography and motion pictures to produce higher quality products that were practical enough to be of commercial value. Their initial business success was manufacturing a "dry" photographic plate that provided a new level of convenience to photographers. The brothers later turned to less viable experiments with color photography, producing a more refined, but expensive, method known as the Autochrome process. The best-known of the Lumières' achievements, however, was the Cinematograph system of projected motion pictures. Their 1895 screening of a series of short films created with the Cinematograph at a Paris cafe is considered the first public cinema performance in history.
Auguste Marie Louis Lumière was born on October 19, 1862, in Besançon, France. His younger brother and future collaborator, Louis Jean Lumière, was born October 5, 1864, in the same town. The brothers also had two other siblings, a sister, Jeanne, and a brother, èdouard, who was killed while serving as a pilot in World War I. The Lumière children were influenced by the artistic and technological interests of their father, Claude-Antoine (known as Antoine) Lumière, a painter and award-winning photographer. In 1860, Antoine had established his own studio in Besançon, where he met and married Jeanne-Josèphine Costille. He entered into a partnership with another photographer in Lyons in 1871, and over the coming years won medals in places such as Paris and Vienna for his photographs. His sons Auguste and Louis would also be avid photographers throughout their lives.
Antoine Lumière encouraged the scientific interests of his sons, and over the years the brothers developed their own specialities. Both had a firm grasp of organic chemistry, an asset that would become valuable in their later photographic work. But while Auguste had a preference for topics in biochemistry and medicine, Louis was more interested in the subject of physics. While attending Martinière Technical School, Louis distinguished himself as the top student in his class in 1880. It was during his school years that Louis began working on an improved photographic plate. Originally, "wet" photographic plates had been the only available medium for photography; these were very inconvenient, however, because they required treatment in a dark room immediately before and after the exposure of the plate. A new, more convenient, "dry" plate had been developed and marketed in the 1870s. Louis developed a better version of the dry plate that became known as the "blue label" plate.
The Lumière brothers and their father saw the potential for marketing such a product, and so, with financial backing from Antoine Lumière, the brothers began producing the plates in 1882. The following year, the venture opened a manufacturing facility in Lyons as the Antoine Lumière and Sons company. As the "blue label" plate became more popular among photographers, production increased from a few thousand a year to more than one million a year by 1886 and 15 million a year by 1894. The contributions of each brother to the success of the company and its products are difficult to isolate, because throughout their careers, the brothers both engaged in refining scientific techniques and they shared all credit on their works and patents. Although their interests varied as the focus of the company changed, a profound professional respect was always obvious between the two and certainly played a major role in their fruitful research and business partnership.
The financial security the Lumière brothers enjoyed, from their booming sales of the dry plate, allowed them to carry out experiments in other aspects of photography. In the early 1890s, they turned to the problem of color photography. Since the advent of photography in the 1830s, numerous attempts had been made to create color photographs, with mixed success. The British scientist James Clerk Maxwell had devised a method in which a color reproduction could be created by using variously colored filters to photograph a subject; the resulting picture, however, could only be viewed by projecting the image—no prints were possible. This obstacle was overcome in the 1860s by the French researcher Louis Ducos du Hauron, who produced a color image by superimposing positive and negative shots taken through colored filters. While a print could be produced in this way, it was a complicated and time-consuming process that never gained much popularity. The Lumières set themselves to the task of creating a more practical application of color photography, but they eventually set the topic aside in favor of pursuing the exciting new field of motion pictures. Their early experiments in color photography, however, provided the groundwork for later innovations.
The interest in film technology had begun as a sort of hobby for the brothers, but soon they realized that work in this area could have great commercial value. Beginning in the summer of 1894, they began to look for a way to project motion pictures. The moving picture had been pioneered more than a decade earlier by the English photographer and bookseller Eadweard Muybridge. In an attempt to find a way to analyze the movement of a horse, around 1880 Muybridge had taken a series of photos of a horse in motion and placed the images on a glass disc that allowed him to project the images in quick succession. The result was a moving image, but one that was limited by the number of pictures that could fit on the disc. The idea was taken up later in the 1880s by French physiologist Étienne-Jules Marey and U.S. inventor Thomas Edison. Edison led experiments that resulted in the 1889 creation of his kinetograph, a machine that used strips of photographic paper to take motion pictures. In 1893 Edison and his researchers produced the kinetoscope, a device also known as a "peep box," which allowed a single person to view the moving image. The Lumière brothers' goal was to improve on Edison's ideas by finding a way to project motion picture films for a larger audience.
Louis realized that the main obstacle to their goal of projection was finding a way to automatically create a continuous movement of the film containing the images. Part of the answer to the problem was found by Louis, who suddenly was inspired while lying awake one night. He realized that the same "presser foot" mechanism that drives a sewing machine could be adapted to move small sections, or frames, of film across the lens in quick succession, allowing a short period of time for each frame to be stationary to allow for exposure. Louis drew up the plans for a prototype camera, which was constructed by one of his technicians at the family factory. This machine, known as the Cinematograph, underwent a number of further developments that made it an extremely versatile tool. Not only could it create the negatives of an image on film, but it could also print a positive image as well as project the results at a speed of 12 frames per second.
Louis made the first use of his new camera in the summer of 1894, filming workers leaving the Lumière plant. He presented the film to the Sociétéd'Encouragement pour l'Industrie Nationale on March 22, 1895. He and Auguste then made arrangements to bring a series of short films to a public audience. They rented a room at the Grand Caféin Paris, and on December 28, 1895, held the first public show of projected moving pictures. The audience wasn't quite sure what to make of the new technology. Louis's creative use of the camera had led him to photograph an approaching train from a head-on perspective; some people in the audience were frightened at the image on the oncoming locomotive and in a panic tried to escape—others simply fainted. Despite their surprise, even shock, at the sight of moving pictures, audiences flocked to the Lumières' demonstrations and the Cinematograph was soon in high demand all around the world.
Both Auguste and Louis created films for a while, but eventually they handed this work over to others so they could pursue other interests. Louis returned to research on color photography, developing the Autochrome process in 1904. His method, although still fairly expensive, provided a level of convenience similar to the dry plate. Autochrome achieved recognition as the best means of producing color images at that time and remained the favored means of color photography for the next 30 years. In later years, Louis would continue his interest in visual reproduction by developing a photographic method for measuring objects in 1920 and inventing relief cinematography techniques in 1935. Auguste spent the early 1900s investigating medical topics such as tuberculosis, cancer, and pharmacology. He joined the medical profession in 1914 as the director of a hospital radiology department. In 1928, Auguste published a medical book entitled Life, Illness, and Death: Colloidal Phenomena.
The Lumière brothers were each recognized for their numerous technological and scientific achievements: Auguste was named a member of the Legion of Honor, and Louis was elected to the French Academy of Sciences. At the age of 83, Louis Lumière died in Bandol, France, on June 6, 1948. His older brother lived to the age of 91 and died in his long-time home of Lyons, France, on April 10, 1954. For their work together in creating improvements in both photography and motion pictures, the Lumière brothers are recognized as symbols of an age of technological creativity and growth. They are also remembered for their lifelong aims of bringing such technology to a wider marketplace, a value seen most clearly in their contributions to the motion picture industry, which has become a popular form of entertainment in countries around the world.
Lumière, Louis, "The Lumière Cinematography," in A Technological History of Motion Pictures and Television, compiled by Raymond Fielding, University of California Press, 1967.
Macgowan, Kenneth, Behind the Screen: The History and Techniques of the Motion Picture, Delacorte Press, 1965.
Sadoul, Georges, "Louis Lumière: The Last Interview," in Rediscovering French Film, edited by Mary Lea Bandy, Museum of Modern Art (New York), 1982.
Walter, Claude, "The Story of Lumière," Ciba Journal, spring, 1964, pp. 28-35.