Did James Ross of Edinburgh Shoot the World’s First Motion Picture?

At the moment I’m writing these words, I don’t believe the name James Ross would mean anything to even the most well-informed cinema historians.  But I think it should, since Ross may well have shot the world’s first-ever motion picture—depending on how we define such things—sometime before July 1876.  It was admittedly a very short motion picture, and I don’t know whether it survives today.  But it did once exist, and it may even played a small part in inspiring subsequent developments in cinematography.  In this post, I’ll explain what I mean here by a “motion picture,” summarize what’s been known in the past about when the first one was created, present the new evidence I’ve turned up about James Ross, and examine it in the context of Ross’s broader career in photography, drawing on some examples of his work in my own collection.

james-ross-backmarkThere’s some room for debate over what counts as a “motion picture,” so let me state up front that what I mean here is a sequence of discrete photographs taken in extremely rapid succession to document phases of movement—in other words, a product of what’s sometimes called “motion sequence photography.”  Such images are motion pictures in the sense that they’re photographs that document motion.  They also have the potential to become moving pictures if they’re displayed in rapid succession, but I’d argue that they’re motion pictures regardless of whether that happens, just as phonautograms are records of sound regardless of whether playback is on the table.  The main technical challenge in early motion sequence photography lay in reducing photographic exposure times down to a fraction of a second, which was really a requirement of “instantaneous” photography in general: the quest to capture sharp images of dynamic subjects such as busy city streets or birds in flight.

Granted, there have been other kinds of “motion picture” and “moving picture” that don’t depend on overcoming the photographic exposure-time hurdle.  Optical devices for producing moving-picture illusions may even date back into prehistory, if Marc Azéma is right.  Until the 1870s, however, such effects were all contrived allographically by people consciously trying to simulate movement, as for instance in the work of Coleman Sellers and Henry Renno Heyl, who photographed people posed statically before the camera in what they guessed to be successive stages of motion and then displayed the results as animations.[1]  None of these earlier “motion pictures” constituted records of actual motion captured from life—the sort of record we now associate with “filming” an action.  The images Jules Janssen took of the transit of Venus in 1874 with his revolver photographique captured real motion, but they were taken at the relatively slow rate of one and a half seconds per frame (judging from the commonly-cited figure of forty-eight exposures in seventy-two seconds).  To repeat, the milestone I want to investigate here is the creation of the world’s first sequence of discrete photographs taken in extremely rapid succession to document phases of movement.

The person generally credited with creating the first successful “motion picture” in the specific sense I’ve spelled out above is Eadweard Muybridge, who shot a pioneering set of photographic sequences of horses in motion in Palo Alto during mid-June 1878.  Early prints of some of these can be viewed online via the Library of Congress, including Sallie Gardner at a Gallop, dated June 19, 1878—not the earliest surviving example from the series, but probably the best known because it furnished the most compelling evidence of the unsupported transit theory which the work had been funded to prove: the belief held by Muybridge’s patron Leland Stanford that there were phases in a horse’s gait when all four hooves were in the air.

sallie-gardner-detailAfter having previously taken some single “instantaneous” photographs of horses in motion, Muybridge produced these multiple-image sequences with a battery of twelve cameras set up along a track to be triggered by tripwires as the horse passed by.  Although the resulting photographs were treated mainly as static images for comparative study, some of them were also tapped early on to create an illusion of motion using zoetropes in which the galloping horse remained in a fixed position and the action was looped into a continuous gait.  However, Sallie Gardner at a Gallop wouldn’t have suited that purpose: its first eleven frames show successive phases of a gait, but its twelfth frame shows horse and rider at a standstill, which makes it unusable as part of a loop.

sallie-gardner-detail2Modern attempts to animate the sequence as a continuous loop sometimes leave out the twelfth frame, like this, but that wouldn’t have been possible in 1878 with a standard twelve-image zoetrope, since one spot would have been left conspicuously empty.  This approach also compromises the integrity of the source material.  Given Muybridge’s use of a numbered background grid besides, an animation like the one shown below—with the grid rather than the horse held statically in place—might better reflect the original intent of the work.

sallie-gardner-at-a-gallopMuybridge’s horse sequences of June 1878 are generally cited as the world’s first motion sequence photographs, but the history of motion sequence photography is sometimes traced back a little further.  In 1860, Sir John F. W. Herschel wrote a piece setting forth the idea of taking stereoscopic motion sequence photographs and animating them to reproduce motion.[2]   This was soon followed by a pair of French patents conceived in the same spirit.

The first was taken out by the Belgian inventor Henri-Désiré du Mont (number 49,520, May 2, 1861): a series of photographic plates were to be attached singly or on a strip to a cylindrical or prismatic drum or long frame, or else lined up in a long box with slits into which they could drop down, so that they could be exposed in rapid succession.  Du Mont showed and demonstrated “a cylindrical apparatus for rapidly obtaining twelve successive plates” before the Société Française de Photographie on January 17, 1862,[3] but apparently only as a model instrument: he didn’t display or describe any actual photographs he had taken with it.  Indeed, Laurent Mannoni writes that Du Mont’s scheme “may have been little more than a pipe-dream….  It was not really until 1871, with the gelatino-bromide ‘dry plate’ process of Richard Leach Maddox, that ‘instantaneous’ photography became a reality….  Not a single photograph [of Du Mont’s] has survived, and his ‘camera’, rediscovered by the historian George Potonnieé in 1928 in the collections of the Société Française de Photographie, has since completely disappeared.”[4]  Overall, there seems to be no evidence that Du Mont ever really took any motion sequence photographs, and historians doubt that this could have been done successfully until the advent of the dry plate in 1871.

The other patent was that of Louis Ducos du Hauron (number 61,976, March 1, 1864), in which hundreds of different lenses were to be uncovered in series by slotted roller blinds to produce separate exposures on a single plate.  Actions of longer duration could be captured by alternating between cameras and switching out plates, and the images were to be displayed in motion either from the plate or from a long strip onto which the images were transferred.[5]  But Laurent Mannoni writes that Ducos du Hauron was forced by economic circumstances to rely on a locksmith to build a model camera for him, which ended up not working.  He continues: “Nothing has survived.  Not a scrap of the picture strip, not a single piece of equipment.  Nothing remains but the patent, which illustrates a rare imagination.  Some historians are suspicious of Ducos du Hauron, claiming that his researches never got beyond the stage of imagination.  That is possible.”[6]  Mannoni represents him as a visionary anyway, but as with Du Mont, there appears to be no compelling evidence that he ever took or showed anyone any actual motion sequence photographs.

Better known in the Anglophone world is the fact that, on November 9, 1876, Wordsworth Donisthorpe applied to the British patent office for provisional protection of certain “[i]mprovements in apparatus for taking a succession of photographic pictures and for exhibiting said pictures.”  Donisthorpe’s specification spells out—in rather vague terms—a mechanism for exposing multiple photographic plates in rapid succession and dropping them into a receiver; after they were developed, he suggested, they could be viewed in a zoetrope.  In January 1878, Donisthorpe wrote a letter to Nature in which he called his invention the “kinesigraph” and envisioned it being used in conjunction with Edison’s recently unveiled phonograph to reproduce events with synchronized sight and sound.  Years later, he wrote another letter to the British Journal of Phonography to assert his priority of invention, in which he stated: “As long ago as 1877 I had a model made.”  It seems that he really had a camera built—this wasn’t just vaporware—but that he hadn’t yet done so in 1876 when he first applied for a patent.  Furthermore, I’m not aware of any evidence that he ever tried to use his first model kinesigraph.  One of his sons remembered playing with it in the family storage room around 1880 but didn’t “think it was satisfactory.”[7]  Donisthorpe did succeed in taking a motion picture of Trafalgar Square with a different contraption around 1890, but as with Du Mont and Ducos du Hauron, what’s missing for the earlier period is any sign of actual motion sequence photographs.

To summarize the current state of knowledge as I understand it:

  • Patents on elaborate motion sequence cameras were taken out by Henri-Désiré du Mont (1861) and Louis Ducos du Hauron (1864), but the consensus is that these didn’t work and, indeed, couldn’t have worked because photographic plates weren’t sensitive enough for such uses until 1871.
  • Wordsworth Donisthorpe had a model motion sequence camera built according to a November 1876 patent specification, but not before 1877, and there’s no indication that it worked either.
  • Eadweard Muybridge is the first person known to have taken actual sets of motion sequence photographs, in mid-June 1878.

I now have reason to believe that a well-known Scottish photographer had beaten Muybridge to the punch.  My source is the following passage from an article on “Instantaneous Photography” that appeared in the British Journal of Photography of July 14, 1876, nearly two years before Muybridge shot his famous horse sequences.

We have no doubt there are times and circumstances when even the most enthusiastic and successful manipulator of dry plates desires a film sufficiently sensitive to receive an instantaneous impression of scenes which occasionally arrest his attention. By “instantaneous,” we do not mean such an exposure as is suitable for breaking waves or fine masses of even moving clouds, as both of the latter class of subjects may get an exposure of a very large fraction of a second, the movement merely serving to soften and probably improve, rather than injure, the pictures. We refer to exposures sufficiently rapid to delineate with perfect sharpness the various moving elements of a crowded thoroughfare, the intricate rigging of a ship in full sail, or the graceful action of a bird on the wing. That such rapid photography is a possible thing we have abundant evidence in many of the street views published from time to time, and also in wonderful studio and garden pictures by various artists—among others by Mr. Ross, of Edinburgh, in one of which a girl on a swing is caught just at the instant when the rope had reached the highest elevation; in another a girl is skipping, the picture showing the rope passing under her feet; while a third is that of a boy jumping over a large stone. The last is peculiarly interesting, as it was stated to be taken with a camera fitted with a number of medallion lenses, placed in threes, one above another. The exposures were made by causing a sheet of metal with a hole in it to fall so that the aperture was for an instant brought successively in front of each lens. To the lower end of the sheet was attached a heavy weight, and it was held up in such a position that the three lenses were all covered. At the proper moment the suspending thread was severed, and, although the time between the passing of the opening in the sheet from one lens to another must have been almost inappreciable, the plate showed the three pictures in very different positions.

The article is unsigned, which implies that it was written by someone connected with the journal itself—perhaps managing editor John Traill Taylor—and also that it carried the weight of the journal’s own authority, as opposed to being a submission from an outside correspondent.  The phrase “Mr. Ross of Edinburgh” is arguably a little ambiguous because there were two photographers named Ross active in Edinburgh at the time.  However, one of them—John—was by far the less prominent and accomplished of the two, so I’m going to assume that the photographer in question was instead the well-known James Ross, the person whom readers of the British Journal of Photography would have assumed the writer meant.[8]  What most interests me is the third specific example of Ross’s work mentioned in the article—a set (or perhaps multiple sets) of photographs which I’ll refer to here as A Boy Jumping Over a Large Stone.  Ross had reportedly constructed a camera with groups of lenses mounted in threes such that an opening in a sheet would pass by the lenses in rapid succession as it fell, producing three different photographs.  There must have been some method of coordinating things so that the thread could be cut at the exact same moment the boy jumped over the stone—we aren’t told what that method was.  But the author gives us a clear account of the results and cites them as impressive evidence of the advanced state of instantaneous photography: “the plate showed the three pictures in very different positions.”  In other words, the three photographs showed the boy in three different successive phases of the jump.  This is essentially the same thing Muybridge accomplished with the horses in Palo Alto, but with a few differences:

  • Ross seems to have captured fewer frames than Muybridge—only three of them, as far as we know.  Muybridge was capturing up to twelve frames in June 1878, and he had soon increased his capacity to twenty-four.  Still, the principle is the same whether we’re talking about three frames, twelve frames, or a hundred thousand frames.
  • Ross used a single multiple-lens camera and plate.  Muybridge used multiple cameras and multiple plates.
  • Ross relied on gravity to control the timing of the exposures.  Muybridge relied on tripwires.
  • Ross took his motion sequence photographs sometime before July 1876.  Muybridge carried out his first experiments of this sort in June 1878.  Hence it would seem to have been Ross, and not Muybridge, who created the world’s first documented set of true motion sequence photographs.

I want to emphasize that there was nothing hypothetical or speculative about the account of Ross’s work in the British Journal of Photography article.  This was no daring vision of a future technology incompletely and imperfectly realized, but rather a concrete observation about a case in which instantaneous photography had been pushed successfully beyond its conventional limits.  A Boy Jumping Over a Large Stone was cited as part of the “abundant evidence” of the current state of the art—evidence that the author had presumably seen at first hand and found impressive.  The jumping boy could be seen, remarkably, in three different positions.

And I see no reason to doubt that Ross could have succeeded in taking such a sequence of photographs where Du Mont and Ducos du Hauron had not.  Unlike them, he was in a position to take advantage of the new dry plate process.  Moreover, his apparatus was far simpler than anything they had proposed in the 1860s—less ambitious, to be sure, but with accordingly less opportunity for mechanical failure.  Indeed, he had presumably just adapted an ordinary multi-lens camera to his purpose by adopting a simple means of uncovering each lens in a given column in rapid succession.

ross-camera-animationIn The Great Art of Light and Shadow, Laurent Mannoni expresses surprise that he’d found no evidence of anyone attempting such an adaptation in the periods and places he investigated:

Astonishingly, neither Achille Quinet, inventor in 1853 of…a binocular camera…nor Disdéri with his four-lens camera, thought of capturing successive phases of movement, whether simulated or natural.  Hundreds of photographers worked on the ‘carte de visite‘ principle during the Second Empire, but not one appears to have dreamed of using their ‘serial’ photographs to lead to animation.  On 18 March 1865, for example, two photographers named Alexandre Klinsky and Jean-Jacques Maingot patented a photographic camera capable of taking no less than 140 microscopic photographs at the same time.  But the idea of gradually uncovering the 140 lenses, to form a series of successive animated pictures, never crossed their minds.[9]

There’s no indication that Ross intended to “animate” his pictures, and A Boy Jumping Over a Large Stone probably postdated the French Second Empire (1852-1870), but in terms of “capturing successive phases of movement,” he had done precisely what Mannoni is surprised nobody had previously thought of doing—which makes his work a nice vindication of Mannoni’s line of reasoning.  It’s possible that Ross wasn’t interested in documenting phases of movement per se, and that his only goal in capturing multiple images was to increase his chances of securing a single desirable image, such as the highest point of the jump.  In that case, the combination of “three pictures in very different positions” may have been an incidental byproduct of the project; but that would make the accomplishment itself no less real.

Further along in the same British Journal of Photography article quoted above, the author describes some personal experiments with instantaneous photography and, in the process, reveals a little more about Ross’s photographs as well:

[I]n a good diffused light, and with a lens of medium rapidity, a number of pictures of an assistant—who, for the nonce, undertook the rôle of a conjurer tossing four balls—were taken, and in several of them the whole four are seen in the air sharply defined against the background, which was printed from a separate negative. The exposure was made in a way similar to that adapted by Mr. Ross; but the plate had a square opening instead of a round one, and it was drawn across the front of the lens by the rapid contraction of an extended elastic band.

The author’s own instantaneous photographs of an assistant juggling balls must have been single images rather than sequences, given the reference to a single opening in the camera; and these were superimposed on a background which had been photographed under more typical circumstances, a detail that brings an element of artful illusion to the experiment.  But as far as Ross’s own photographs are concerned, we learn that his plate had a round opening—for A Boy Jumping Over a Large Stone, I suppose there would have been three of them—such that the images themselves would also have been round rather than square.

And the “round” images might conceivably have been oval rather than circular.  Ross himself definitely produced CDVs—cartes de visite, the most popular photographic format of the 1860s and 1870s—with oval portraits on them, just as many other photographers of the time did.  Here’s a nice specimen of one of Ross’s oval CDV portraits, taken circa 1865-66:

1209With the child’s tousled hair and naturally positioned (but slightly blurry) hand, I’d say this comes as close in its aesthetics to a candid snapshot as any studio portraiture of the period which I’ve seen.  The images making up A Boy Jumping Over a Large Stone may have looked somewhat similar to this.  The author of the description we have offered them as evidence of the advanced state of instantaneous dry plate photography, so they can’t have been too abysmal, but Ross was willing to compromise on technical quality when he felt some major conceptual or artistic advance was at stake.  In 1875, he stated: “to those who say that nothing should be done by photography except what can be done to perfection, I have only to reply that such an idea, if acted upon, would stop all progress, and, in the opinion of many, the art of photography in every shape would have to be abandoned.  Besides, is the fond mother’s heart not to be gladdened by a true representation of her baby’s very pleasant although very evanescent smile, merely because the background may not be quite so speckless or spotless as it should be?”[10]  There was nothing more evanescent than a boy caught in mid-jump over a stone.

If James Ross did in fact pioneer the practice of motion sequence photography, he would provide a unique personal link between it and the dawn of photography itself.  Neither Henri-Désiré du Mont (probably born in 1821)[11] nor Wordsworth Donisthorpe (born in 1847) had any substantial background in photography, while Louis Ducos du Hauron (born in 1837) got into it in his twenties and Eadweard Muybridge (born in 1830) took it up sometime in the 1860s.  By contrast, James Ross belonged solidly to the world’s first generation of professional photographers.  Born in Old Machar, Aberdeenshire, around 1814,[12] he initially received training as a painter, presumably during the 1830s, since he first appears in Edinburgh trade directories as a “portrait painter” in 1841/42, and then as a “portrait and landscape painter” in partnership with a wood engraver named Robert Bishop in 1844/45.[13]  But the introduction of the daguerreotype in 1839, and of the calotype in 1841, had thrown the universe of visual arts into flux right as Ross was launching his career, and he had quickly moved to adapt to the new technological landscape.  As John Nicol wrote:

Mr. Ross, who had the advantage of being trained as an artist, was one of the fortunate few who, having taken up the new art enthusiastically, soon adopted it as a profession, and he is one of the still fewer whose career as a professional photographer has been in every way an unqualified and unbroken success. Those who had a personal acquaintance with Mr. Ross have no difficulty in finding the cause of his great success both artistically and pecuniarily. He had a high appreciation of, and an intense love for, art; and in his daily work seemed ever striving after an ideal perfection. Instead of trying merely to satisfy the tastes of his numerous patrons, who, though drawn mainly from the more cultivated classes, were in many cases somewhat deficient in art culture, he, by his suavity of manner and genial bonhomie which so peculiarly characterised him, easily led them on to do, and let him do, that which generally resulted in work of artistic as well as technical excellence.

Mr. Ross rarely, if ever, complained of dull times, and was as rarely to be found idle, delighting in experimenting with varied methods of lighting and posing, as if he had been a student fresh from the academy. In this way, and as the result of much well-spent leisure, he produced many exquisitely beautiful gems that found their way all over the world, and many of which were from time to time reproduced as engravings in various illustrated periodicals.[14]

It was during Ross’s brief partnership with Robert Bishop that he had first entered the field of photography, as he recalled in 1857 (apparently as part of a discussion of how to fix photographic images permanently):

My attention was first drawn to this subject from the circumstance of the very first calotype I ever had in my hand vanishing from my sight while admiring it.  It had been merely washed, probably in common salt.

This took place some fourteen or fifteen years ago, when in conjunction with Mr. Bishop, a very able chemist, I made my first experiments in the art.[15]

Around 1848, Ross had formed a longer-term partnership with John Thomson.  At first Thomson was billed as a daguerreotypist while Ross continued to specialize in calotypes (i.e., photographs made using paper negatives),[16] but during the 1850s the two jointly established a reputation as the leading practitioners in the British Isles of photography using albumen-on-glass negatives.[17]  Their work using this process turned up regularly in the photographic exhibitions of the period, and one panoramic view of Edinburgh which they took around 1850 can be seen online courtesy of the National Galleries of Scotland.  During the early 1860s, Ross and Thomson catered to the burgeoning demand for CDV portraits in their studio at 90 Princes Street; regarded as “the leading photographers in Edinburgh,” they prided themselves particularly on their instantaneous photographs of children.[18]  From 1865-66, Ross carried on similar work as a sole proprietor at Brae House, Lothian Road, but in 1867 he formed a new partnership with Thomas Pringle, who had then “been his principal Assistant for many years.”[19]  In 1876, when the article describing A Boy Jumping Over a Large Stone was published, Ross and Pringle had just moved from their long-time headquarters at 114 George Street to a new address at 103 Princes Street recently vacated by fellow photographer John Moffat.  Dr. John Nicol wrote a detailed description of the new facility, which I’ll quote here at length because it gives such a good overview of Ross’s operations:

The saloon, or reception room, commands one of the finest views in the city, including the Castle, Princes-street Gardens, and Princes-street itself, both east and west, with its ever-changing, busy throng. The room is severely plain, but chastely elegant. Of furniture there is literally none, except a few chairs and a kind of ottoman in front of the window; but the walls are completely covered with specimens of all the various kinds of work for which the firm has long enjoyed a reputation. Conspicuous amongst these are, naturally, the paintings in oil on a photographic basis, some being by Mr. Ross himself, and others by the various artists they employ, whose names in most cases are painted on the pictures—a thing which I do not remember having seen in any other establishment. Mr. Ross is an enthusiast in his profession, and nothing seems to give him more pleasure than to point out to an appreciating eye and a willing ear the various beauties of the collection, which includes nearly all the Scottish peerage, and not a few of that across the border.

The principal studio is only some six or eight steps above the level of the saloon. It measures 24 × 15 feet, and runs north and south. The roof is pyramidal in form, and screened with large louvre boards. The east and west sides are glazed with obscured glass, except a portion in the centre of the east, which is the principal light, and which is clear from the top to about one-third down. At first there was some difficulty as to how the boat with real water, which has long been so popular with the clientèle of the firm, was to be managed, but that has been got over very satisfactorily. The boat has been set in a framework of wood and canvas, and with highly-glossy paint a representation of waves and froth has been made so real as almost to defy detection. On the same level the dark room, which is well lighted and well ventilated, is situated. It contains ample accommodation for two or three operators, and is furnished with slate developing-troughs, which have been in use for ten years, and are as good as when first put together. An easily-ascended flight of stairs leads to a smaller studio placed over the dark end of the one already described, and which stands east and west. In this I saw excellent negatives being made with very short exposures—shorter, in fact, than they used to give in the studio in George-street, where the quantity of available glass was much larger in proportion than here. On the floor on this level there is a large room which has been divided into compartments for retouching, preparing paper, print-washing, and finishing generally, and anyone who may have the entrée to this will have an opportunity of seeing how quietly, yet rapidly and satisfactorily, the high-class work of a busy firm is done. Above this, and erected literally on the slates, is a building of wood and glass, one half of which is devoted to printing and the other to enlarging. This latter may be regarded as a camera, literally a chambre noir, in which the plate is not only prepared and developed, but exposed also.

As an indication of how science is gradually creeping in everywhere I may say the whole establishment is fitted with a system of electric bells in such a way that instant communication may be made from any one place to another, and that by a simply-understood code of signals telegraphic messages can be made to save much valuable time and much waste of muscular energy in running up and down stairs.[20]

Given the recency of the move to Princes Street, I suspect A Boy Jumping Over a Large Stone had likely been taken at the old George Street address.  Indeed, there’s some suggestion that Ross had been able to arrange things at George Street that couldn’t quite be replicated at Princes Street: witness the “boat with real water,” which had needed to be replaced by a clever faux-water accessory.  (For examples of different manifestations of the “boat,” see here, here, here, and here; also an account of an excursion to Gare Loch in July 1876 during which Ross took “a photograph, which is intended to be copied and used as a background for the ever-popular boat,” here).  On the other hand, Nicol writes that Ross seemed to be securing good negatives with shorter exposure times at Princes Street than at George Street, despite lower light levels, so maybe the reduction in exposure times needed for A Boy Jumping Over a Large Stone was a very recent development.  I’ll concede that there’s a lot we don’t know here—or at least a lot that I don’t know.

As the popularity of the “boat” suggests, Ross was adept at staging attractive fictional scenes for the camera.  The “real water” in the studio at George Street didn’t serve only as surroundings for the boat but was also put to other uses, as shown by this portrait of two identically dressed girls—the dealer from whom I bought it identified them as sisters named Brown, maybe from an album inscription—on fake stepping-stones, complete with appropriate reflections below, and with the one girl seemingly captured in mid-step.

1218Does this image represent a static pose held for the time ordinarily needed to secure a good exposure, or a real action frozen “instantaneously”?  I’d bet on the former, but I don’t know for sure.  And that’s not the only detail that invites speculation; Ross must have kept these stones on hand as props in his studio, so could one of them have been the same “large stone” he had the boy jump over?  This seems likely, but again, I don’t know.  What I can say is that this portrait gives us a tantalizing glimpse at how Ross was approaching the photography of children in motion—and specifically children moving around rocks—at approximately the same time he shot A Boy Jumping Over a Large Stone.

Other comparable artifices aren’t difficult to find in Ross’s work.  A distinctive fake “balcony” turns up repeatedly in photographs spanning the Ross & Thomson and Ross & Pringle partnerships:

1212Ross & Thomson also took a number of photographic portraits featuring a painted “window” in the background that depicted Edinburgh Castle (note also the Scottish thistle in the foreground):

1215Given Ross’s training and background as a painter, he would most likely have painted the “window” himself.  Along with the staging of fictional scenes with or without painted backgrounds, Ross’s operation also included painting on photographs.  These two practices converged in the only piece of his work that has (as far as I’m aware) been a subject of cultural criticism in the past century.  Nancy Armstrong reproduces an image with the title Lady M. Campbell Argyle as Red Riding Hood in black and white in her book Fiction in the Age of Photography, remarking that “the effects of miniaturization are immediately apparent in the child’s fanciful appropriation of the dress formerly associated with the women of British fishing villages.”   I’m not sure whether the print Armstrong consulted in the Archie Miles Collection is tinted or not,[21] but my own copy is richly hand-painted.

1213“Lady M. Campbell Argyle” can be identified as Lady Mary Emma Campbell—born September 22, 1859, the daughter of George Douglas Campbell, 8th Duke of Argyll (1823-1900)—who would have been around six years old when the photograph was taken.  To a point, the image was an authentic photographic portrait of her, and her identity as a subject was significant: this was no anonymous model drawn in off the street, but a member of a Scottish noble family.  At the same time, the color was added later—for all we know, the hood which Mary Emma wore in the studio might have been yellow—and the scene itself was a fictional one, drawn from a fairy tale: Little Red Riding Hood standing at the door of her grandmother’s cottage, a subject that had been represented similarly in English commercial stereoviews of the time, like this one (see here for my animation technique):

959-morphedBut there were limits to the artifices which Ross was willing to countenance.  He later contrasted his early experiences in landscape photography with the techniques he’d learned as a landscape painter, emphasizing the heightened potential for “truth” he associated with photographs and condemning cases where it was squandered:

Mr. Ross said that he was probably one of the very earliest landscape photographers, and he could assure all present that there was a charm in the practice which only landscape photographers could appreciate…. It had, no doubt, its drawbacks, as everything else had, but none that with care, judgment, and patience might not be overcome. The painter could select the point of view which pleased him best, and if the foreground was not to his liking he could select one more suitable and put it in; but no such good fortune fell to the lot of the photographer. He had to move from point to point till he got what was required; and, if his soul were in his work, he did not grudge to travel many a long mile to secure his object. His own habit had been to devote the misty days to such prospecting; and even that was glorious work, as the find old hills of their native land never looked so grand as when seen by glimpses through masses of rolling mist…. He was glad to say that landscape negatives had not as yet been to any extent subjected to the abomination of retouching, and he hoped they never would. The truth, and nothing but the truth, should be the motto of every landscape worker; and he should look upon any proposal to bring the landscape negative under the retoucher’s hand as a charge against the Divine Architect of having done His work imperfectly.[22]

Ross’s antipathy towards retouching comes up repeatedly in his remarks; on another occasion, he asserted that a retouched photograph of a human subject “had no bones, no muscle, no nothing, in fact, that a picture ought to have, and gave rather the idea that the model had been a mass of plastic putty, manipulated by a clumsy hand.”[23]  He was comfortable with staging fictional scenes and painting on photographic prints, as we’ve seen, but tampering with negatives was plainly unacceptable to him—indeed, he considered it literally blasphemous, if we take his statements at face value.  Moreover, he seems to have been one of the few photographers of the time who went out of his way to convey his philosophical views to popular audiences, as we see in this report from February 1876:

No doubt, we occasionally hear of a popular lecture on photography, but they are few and far between; and it is curious that it should be so, as there is hardly a single subject that would afford a greater number of strikingly-beautiful experimental illustrations. It is pleasing to record a move in the right direction by Mr. Ross, of the firm of Messrs. Ross and Pringle, who, a few days ago, entertained and instructed a large audience with such a lecture as I have indicated. He treated of photography under three heads—optical, chemical, and artistic—and illustrated each by some attractive experiments, being particularly successful in photographing a bust by the magnesium light, and in illustrating the artistic phase by a series of well-chosen transparencies. The lecture concluded with the general statement that posture was most perfectly expressed by Greek sculpture, and that in modern statuary there was a decided tendency to the stiffness of the Egyptian style—a style almost universally adopted by the less artistically-educated class of photographers.[24]

Ross retired from the photographic profession towards the end of 1878,[25] just as Muybridge’s horse sequences were attracting attention; and he died on March 15, 1895,[26] as motion-picture films were first becoming a thing.  As far as I’m aware, he never claimed to have been a trailblazer of motion sequence photography, nor does anyone else back in the day seem ever to have made such a claim on his behalf; perhaps the stakes weren’t yet high enough, or perhaps his reputation as a pioneer photographer was already too well established for an additional claim of this sort to have had much appeal.  Even for myself, I’m not so interested in the question of who deserves credit for the innovation as I am in locating that innovation in its particular cultural context.  From that standpoint, what strikes me as most noteworthy about Ross’s role is that it would tie the first motion sequence photography so firmly to mainstream photographic practice.  Ross was a pillar of the Scottish photographic community: an old-timer who had participated at first hand in the transition from painting to calotypes in the 1840s, a practicing portrait photographer immersed in the artifices of painted backdrops and fake boats and balconies, a creator of fictions such as Lady M. Campbell Argyll as Red Riding Hood, and yet a stickler for the “truth” of landscape photography.  For him and his peers, A Boy Jumping Over a Large Stone seems to have fit seamlessly into that same comfortable universe of photographic philosophy and practice, ingenious but not at all revolutionary.

After describing Ross’s work and the attempts to photograph an assistant juggling balls, the author of the British Journal of Photography article of July 14, 1876 went on to remark: “A series of such pictures thus truly suggesting action would assuredly command public attention and favour; and we feel convinced that any photographer going heartily into the matter and placing them commercially in the market will find himself amply rewarded for his pains.”  Stephen Herbert writes: “It is impossible to know why [Wordsworth] Donisthorpe became interested in photographing and reproducing motion.  Perhaps he was inspired by something he read in a scientific or popular journal….”[27]  If so, the timing of the piece in the British Journal of Photography would have been exactly right to serve as Donisthorpe’s inspiration, and, as Herbert observes, a report of Donisthorpe’s idea seems to have been responsible in turn for sparking Thomas Edison’s first interest in the “kinetoscope.”[28]

I don’t know whether A Boy Jumping Over a Large Stone survives today.  Its existence hasn’t been reported anywhere that I’ve seen, but I doubt anyone has been actively looking for it, and the average person running across it while inventorying a collection of old photographs might not have recognized it for what it is.  If it’s still around, maybe this blog post will help set things in motion towards its discovery.  Of course I’d love to see it.  But even if it doesn’t survive, I believe it’s still the first documented set of true motion sequence photographs on record.  And that’s nothing to sneeze at, even for Fred Ott.


November 7, 2014: Updated with a new scan of the CDV with the Edinburgh Castle “window,” which finally reached me today—an apparent casualty of delays in mail from the UK due to a Chicago airport fire in late September.  I’d previously been using a picture from the eBay auction as a placeholder.

February 25, 2021: Fixed incorrect link to Du Mont’s patent and changed the spelling of his name from “Henry,” which I suspect is an artifact of the English translation of Mannoni, to “Henri.”  Some publications instead give the name as “Thomas Hooman” Du Mont, while the patent itself identifies him only as “M. [i.e., Monsieur] Dumont.”  Also replaced dead link to a description of Ducos du Hauron’s patent with a Wayback Machine link.  I note also a new web page maintained by Les amis de Louis Ducos du Hauron which outlines this inventor’s cinema work, citing among other things a retrospective remark from L’Illustration for September 1920 about him having tried an experiment “on the principle of the stroboscope before his house in Agen by filming on boulevard Scaliger a worker paving a street with his rammer” (in the original French, he had “tenté un essai sur le principe du stroboscope devant son habitation d’Agen en filmant boulevard Scaliger un ouvrier pavant une rue avec sa demoiselle“).


1. For an introduction to the work of Sellers and Heyl, see M. J. McCosker, “Philadelphia and the Genesis of the Motion Picture,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography (October 1941), 401-419, at 404-408; online here.  Despite speculation that Heyl had “perhaps succeeded in capturing true movement”—see Laurent Mannoni, The Great Art of Light and Shadow: Archaeology of the Cinema, transl. and ed. by Richard Crangle (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2000), 262—Heyl himself confirmed years later that “the art of rapid picture-making” had not yet been developed at that time, and that “it was necessary to limit the views of subjects to those that could be taken by time exposures upon wet plates”; see his letter to the editor of the Journal of the Franklin Institute here.  I don’t know how he secured the sequence of a leaping acrobat, but it clearly wasn’t captured from live action.

2.  J. F. W. Herschel, “Instantaneous Photography,” Photographic News, May 11, 1860, p. 13, online here.

3.  Reported in Bulletin de la Société française de photographie 8 (1862): 34-36, online here.

4.  Mannoni, Great Art of Light and Shadow, 253-4.

5.  A certificate of addition of December 3, 1864, reduced the number of lenses and otherwise tweaked the design, but I haven’t seen the original text and secondary sources are unclear as to whether it dealt to any extent with the taking of photographs.

6.  Mannoni, Great Art of Light and Shadow, 260.

7.  Stephen Herbert, Industry, Liberty, and a Vision: Wordsworth Donisthorpe’s Kinesigraph (London: Projection Box, 1998), 28.

8. “Mr. Ross” of Ross and Pringle was not Robertson Ross as reported online here, on the website Photographers of Great Britain & Ireland, 1840-1940, citing “A Disputed Artist’s Account,” Edinburgh Evening News, October 22, 1875.  I quote: “In the autumn of 1875 John Moffat took another well known Edinburgh photographer, Robertson Ross of Ross & Pringle, to court for non payment for photographic work carried out.”  However, another account of the same incident appears in “Notes from the North,” British Journal of Photography, January 28, 1876, online here; the source of the confusion seems to have been that the man being sued (Robertson Ross, who had ordered photographic copies of documents for use in a court case) had the same surname as the photographer called as a witness regarding typical prices for such photographic work (James Ross, of Ross and Pringle).

9.  Mannoni, Great Art of Light and Shadow, 255.

10. “Edinburgh Photographic Society,” British Journal of Photography, February 12, 1875, p. 81, online here.

11.  “Belgique, Hainaut, registres d’état civil, 1600-1913”, index and images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/27JF-K6K : accessed 19 Sep 2014), Henri Desiré Dumont, 1821.

12. See James Ross, censuses, http://www.edinphoto.org.uk/pp_n/pp_ross_james_censuses.htm — he is identified as born in Old Machar and as 66 years old in the 1881 census, which was taken on the night of April 3/4, 1881. That points to a birthdate between early April 1814 and early April 1815.  With that in mind, he might have been the James Ross christened there on April 19, 1815, the son of Alexander and Jean (Turnbul) Ross; see “Scotland, Births and Baptisms, 1564-1950,” index, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/XBB1-2P2 : accessed 15 Sep 2014), James Ross, 19 Apr 1815; citing OLD MACHAR,ABERDEEN,SCOTLAND, reference ; FHL microfilm 991140.  However, his age at the time of his death in March 1895 was given as eighty-one, pointing to a birthdate between March 1813 and March 1814.  So perhaps he was the James Ross christened on January 29, 1814, the son of James and Rachel (Howie) Ross; see “Scotland, Births and Baptisms, 1564-1950,” index, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/XBB1-2PJ : accessed 16 Sep 2014), James Ross, 29 Jan 1814; citing OLD MACHAR,ABERDEEN,SCOTLAND, reference ; FHL microfilm 991140.

13.  “James Ross: Professional Photographer,” EdinPhoto, http://www.edinphoto.org.uk/pp_n/pp_ross_james_professional_photographer.htm

14.  John Nicol, “Notes from the North,” British Journal of Photography, December 27, 1878, p. 617, online here.

15.  Quoted from Photographic Notes,  vol. 2, October 1, 1857, pp. 361-364, at http://www.edinphoto.org.uk/pp_n/pp_ross_and_bishop.htm

16. See biography of James Ross in Roger Taylor and Larry J. Schaaf, Impressed by Light: British Photographs from Paper Negatives, 1840-1860 (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007), 365-366, also available online here; and Joe Rock, “James Ross and hand coloured calotypes,” online here.

17. In addition to the sources in note #2, see an account of the work of Ross and Thomson with albumen-on-glass negatives in the North British Review 29 (1858), at 204-205, online here.

18. Quotation from James Hogg, De Quincey and His Friends: Personal Recollections, Souvenirs and Anecdotes of Thomas de Quincey, His Friends and Associates (London: Sampson, Low, Marston and Company, 1895), 195, online here; and on instantaneous photography of children see e.g., Ross & Thomson to William Henry Fox Talbot, August 11, 1862, online here.

19. Edinburgh Evening Courant, April 5, 1867, online here.

20. “Photographic Ateliers At Home and Abroad,” British Journal of Photography, August 4, 1876, p. 366-367, at 367, online here.

21.  Nancy Armstrong, Fiction in the Age of Photography: The Legacy of British Realism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999); image at 195, text at 197, citation at xii, online here.

22.  “Edinburgh Photographic Society,” British Journal of Photography, May 15, 1874, p. 235, online here.

23. “Edinburgh Photographic Society,” British Journal of Photography, February 12, 1875, pp. 81-82, at 82, online here.

24.  John Nicol, “Notes from the North,” British Journal of Photography, February 25, 1876, pp. 90-92, at 92, online here.

25. John Nicol, “Notes from the North,” British Journal of Photography, December 27, 1878, p. 617, online here.

26. “Death of Mr. James Ross,” British Journal of Photography, March 29, 1895, p. 194, online here.

27. Herbert, Industry, Liberty, and a Vision, 25.

28. Herbert, Industry, Liberty, and a Vision, 33.

6 thoughts on “Did James Ross of Edinburgh Shoot the World’s First Motion Picture?

  1. Thanks Patrick for that incredibly interesting and informative blog about James Ross. Being Scots by birth I’m always gladdened to read about Scots who have made a difference in the world. My daughter Asia holds you in extremely high regard and the quality of your work explains why. Thanks for posting this.

  2. A great piece of research and interpretation. I shall be citing this in the new expanded edition of ‘Industry, Liberty and a Vision…’, currently in progress. (Stephen Herbert)

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