The Photographic Historical Society of Canada

The Origin of Images and Beginning of Cinematography
Paul Burns
Program date: October 15, 2008

Paul Burns
Paul Burns by
Robert Lansdale

four horses
Four horses

eight legs
Boar - eight legs

natural pin hole
Natural pin hole

Paleo image
Paleo image

Egyptian wrestlers
Egyptian wrestlers

Trajans column
Trajans colum

China upper river scroll
Upper river scroll

Arnaud de Villeneuve
Arnaud de Villeneuve

Descartes ox-eye
Descartes ox-eye

Sketch of a nun with a lantern or camera
Camera obscura?

Camera obscura
Camera obscura

Old Delft - Vermeer
Old Delft by Vermeer

Art of painting - Vermeer
Art of painting

“I was blown away when I saw his web site”, said Felix Russo in his introduction of our guest speaker, Mr Paul Burns. Paul is a self taught amateur historian. He doesn’t collect cameras or other artifacts of images and photography, just knowledge and information. Paul is a lover of old films, the thirties movies being his favourite genre. He has a degree in film studies and applied communications and has worked in TV, print, radio, and as a photojournalist. This was his first opportunity to speak to a large group.

Silent movies were big hit for the young Paul Burns, as were most of the 20s, 30s, and 40s flicks. Paul noted that he had no idea how films were made, or how they moved from concept to his local movie house. This changed in 1992. Paul was waiting in store line up when he noticed a copy of Premiere magazine announcing the 100th anniversary of movie making. Intrigued, he purchased a copy. He didn’t know 1992 was the anniversary of movies, although the Lumiere brothers, and a December 1895 presentation along with a few other names, seemed familiar.

Working as a free-lance writer at the time, Paul called a newspaper contact and offered to write a short history of movies. The newspaper man said “Sure, write up a 500 word article for us”. Well, it’s not very difficult to write 500 words on any topic. A visit to the library turned up lots of books on photography, but very little on the history of movie-making. He took a few books out and looked them over. Familiar names. Familiar inventions. Paul realized there was much more to movie making than just the Lumiere brothers, the cafe presentation and 1895.

In the research for his article, Paul found names linked to other names and read of various devices linked to even more names. Paul never did publish his 500 word article. Over night he had written a thousand words, and in days his article grew to ten thousand words, going back to the year 1800. Today, his research has grown to 72,000 words on his web site, all cross-referenced and annotated. He used to say it was a complete history, but he removed the word “complete” since he continues to find new things, some of which contribute to the history. Paul’s work is titled “The History of the Discovery of Cinematography”.

His online story is a chronological and illustrated history of cinematography in fifteen chapters reaching back from 1900 to about 14,000 BC. He considers cinema to be a natural phenomenon, better described by science. He thought he had researched to the beginnings with the writings of Aristotle (384 - 322 BC) and Mo Ti of China (470 - 391 BC). Then he came across an even earlier link to cinematography which he shared with us in this talk.

This evening, Paul addressed the image aspect of cinematography which he titled “The Origin of Images and Beginning of Cinematography”, going well back into history far beyond what we usually think of as the beginnings of motion pictures. He wondered about the ancient cave paintings and whether they had a link to the story of cinematography.

Pin Hole Images. These are natural images cast by a pinhole “lens”. Who first saw these images and did they understand them? Paul notes there is no direct line between the beginnings of pin hole images, the camera obscura effect, and magic lanterns. He believes pin hole images were separate from the camera obscura effect for the first one or two percent of this history before use of the camera took over and images could be contained and maintained.

Cave Paintings Around the World. Paul pointed out that 99% of cave art shows animals and some humans, with some 90% of these images showing motion. Why are there no landscapes or still life images? Why are the animals shown as moving? Paul presented from his web site the four horses image from the Chauvet cave in France that appear to be walking. Another image found in Altemira, Spain shows an eight legged boar. The four pairs of legs are the artists attempt to show the animal running. Did the artist see the animal running? Did he want to show it running? - A question one can ask of all the other pictures of animals in motion. Paul notes the work of Matt Gatton which argues that cave paintings may support the use of pin hole images. Gatton proposes that a hide across the cave mouth would make a natural camera obscura. A small natural hole in the hide could project outside images, including animals in motion. Please see Matt Gatton’s web site for more information (also linked from www.precinemahistory.net/900.htm scroll down to the article on "Moving Cave Art").

Paul noted other efforts to depict motion in history such as Egyptian art with strips of pictures of wrestlers, Bayeaux Tapestry, spiral friezes on roman columns, and monumental landscape paintings from China and Japan. Visit Paul's site to see the full "Upper River during Qing Ming Festival" scroll.

Camera Obscura - Cinema c1290. The camera obscura, whether in the form of a little box or big room, contains scenes of the world outside. c1290 Arnaud de Villeneuve used a camera obscura to “project” actors outdoors on an inner wall to entertain an audience inside the camera obscura as a “moving show” or cinema. The performances even included sounds from the outside. A picture drawn some 130 years later shows what appears to be a small camera obscura held by nun. Looking at the drawing raises the question. “Is the image a blow up of the drawing the girl sees, or the object projected in the camera?” There is some debate whether the instrument in the drawing is a magic lantern. (Magic lanterns were used at one time to frighten people by project images of demons.)

Girolamo Cardano in 1550 may have copied Villeneuve’s ideas when he too projected outdoor scenes into a camera obscura room. Cardano used a convex lens in the aperture of the camera obscura which would create a brighter image. Was this the first cinema? No projector, no celluloid, just a tiny hole in the wall projecting live actors.

c1500 less than 1% of the famous Leonardo da Vinci’s material is related to the camera obscura, yet in all his work he provides 270 diagrams of the device. Philosophers like da Vinci spent time observing, thinking and putting theories on paper, including thoughts on the relationship between the human eye and the glass lens.

Magic Lantern. In c1521 a Jesuit priest, Franciscus Maurolycus, describes how to build a microscope and writes of how an object’s shadow can be converted and projected. This was some 122 years before Athanasius Kircher and his work on the magic lantern. Kircher is credited as the first person to project a slide show on a screen using a magic lantern illuminated with a candle, but that is debated since Cellini is said the have presented a phantasmagoric type of show around 1540. (Paul pointed out his presentation tonight is not that different from the shows of centuries ago - only the technology has changed.)

Camera Obscura and Painting. Paul chose Johannes Vermeer, the Dutch painter from Delft, as his example of painters using the camera obscura. Vermeer’s 1650 painting of ships in port shows ‘circles of confusion’ in the water near the hulls. These are visual artifacts seen only when a scene is viewed via a lens such as in a camera obscura. The camera obscura would help the artist get the correct perspective for the objects in his painting. A number of Vermeer’s paintings have sight lines consistent with the perspective presented in a camera obscura. On his web site Paul shows, “the art of painting”, in which Vermeer has even painted the hole left by a sight line tack - such sight line tack marks show up in seventeen of Vermeer’s paintings.

The Future Predicted. We think of photography as processes first publicly described in 1839 by Daguerre and Fox Talbot. In 1760, Charles De la Roche wrote a story that predicted photography. In De la Roche’s time the sensitivity of silver salts to light was known. The missing element was the means to “fix” the result - that is, stop the sensitivity to light. In De la Roche’s story “Giphantie” there are a number of scenes. One describes an imaginary process that records an image created by light on a specially treated canvas. Once exposed, the canvas is placed in the dark for an hour to “dry” and the result is a picture accurate to nature.

The Back Story. Paul started his history in 1992 using an Underhill typewriter - the dominant writing machine of the day for writers and commerce. In the early 1980s when micro-computers hit the market, Paul moved over to a Commodore 64, the most popular personal computer of the time. With its 64k memory and no paging to disk, it meant saving every few pages and creating a new file. When he started researching, only the printed page was available for reference. Two years later, in 1994 the World Wide Web was added to the internet that already housed bulletin boards and emails. Paul got access to the web in 1995-6 and the flood gates opened. A wealth of information rapidly built up on the web, surpassing what he could find locally. This information was vital as Paul was unable to travel to the great European libraries and museums. Today, lots of copyright free images and animations are available in the public domain, and people world-wide have offered Paul additional information and pictures for free.

When Paul first started, he envisioned his work as printed pages in a book that would be required reading in schools. He first tried to get his book published in late 1990s. Finally, in the early 2000s, Indiana University Press solicited his manuscript. Hearing nothing further, Paul followed up with the company only to discover the editor he dealt with had quit and walked off with his manuscript - a common situation, he discovered. Usually the editor tries to peddle the purloined manuscripts to other college presses. Paul’s manuscript has never surfaced, so he hasn’t needed to call his lawyer…yet.

Paul now feels that self publishing on web is the better approach. He has added as many illustrations and cross-references as possible. The new medium better lends itself to the subject, even permitting motion not possible on the printed page. Paul uses animation files in the Graphics Interchange Format (GIF). GIFs are much simpler to use than Flash movies or other means of animation - and all browsers display GIF animations without special plug-ins.

Well that’s it. Paul ended his story long before cinematography as we know it with its mechanical cameras, projectors and reels of celluloid film had even begun. You owe yourself the pleasure of a visit his site at www.precinemahistory.net. Discover for yourself the thorough and comprehensive research he has put together. From the early 1800s on there are many entries that pertain to still photography too. And the animated GIFs on these page showing snippets of movie history are fascinating. Finally, if you have any information to add to Paul’s research, please drop him a note.


This page was designed in Dreamweaver CS4 on an iMac running OS X 10.5 (Leopard). Unless otherwise noted, images on this page are from Paul Burns's web site and subsequently adjusted in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom V2 or Photoshop CS4. Presentation images are ©2008 by Paul Burns and may not be used with out his permission. Contents and all other images are ©2008 by the Photographic Historical Society of Canada and may be used freely provided the source is clearly indicated. Copies of photographs displayed during this presentation may not be used without the copyright holder's permission. Contact PHSC at info@phsc.ca if you would like more information on the items discussed on this page.

Bob Carter

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