The book will also tell the story of Le Prince’s arrest in Paris, where he was mistaken for a spy and imprisoned during the Franco-Prussian War. It will then follow Le Prince to New York where he patented a design for a 16-lens camera with which, it seems, he planned to make 3D films, and will explore his fears of industrial espionage, particularly his suspicion that his work was being blocked by none other than the iconic inventor, Thomas Edison.
Returning to Leeds where Le Prince shot what are now considered to have been the world’s first films, the story will take us, inevitably, to the events of 16 September 1890 when, after a visit to his brother – and just before he was due to demonstrate his films in New York – he boarded the Dijon to Paris train and was never seen or heard from again. The Shadow Traps draws together the threads of evidence strewn throughout the narrative in order to answer the question of why he never returned to New York and in doing so, will reveal a conspiracy within a conspiracy. The ‘investigation’ section of the book will use a combination of known material, recently discovered evidence and a scattering of clues that have hidden in plain sight for over a century. It will take us from secretive workshops to masonic lodges to the Paris morgue and beyond. But the book will also go beyond biography and ‘whodunnit’ to become a meditation on the power and the potential of film. The Shadow Traps will be a love letter to this most glorious of art forms and a celebration of the pioneers who gave themselves so completely and so obsessively to it.
In the years 1887-88, the inventor Louis Le Prince shot what many people now consider to have been the world’s first ever true films. He shot them in Leeds, England, a dynamic northern town at the heart of both an industrial revolution and a wave of invention. Le Prince worked on his films there in a state of near secrecy with only a few trusted friends and assistants allowed to watch as flickering images were thrown onto a white sheet hung up as a screen in a small workshop a few minutes from the centre of town.
With ‘Roundhay Garden’; ‘Boy with Melodion’ and ‘Leeds Bridge Scene’, Le Prince managed to capture continuous motion. But more than just motion, he also somehow captured the vitality of his subjects, their senses of mischief even, and all within the span of three scenes which predated anything by Edison or the Lumière brothers.
However, Le Prince would never get to tell the world about his achievements. On September 16th 1890, during a trip to France – and just before he was due to show his pictures in public for the first time – he boarded the Dijon to Paris train and was never seen or heard from again.
This book was based originally on a conflation of two talks I gave on Le Prince in 2015 and 2016, ‘A Ghost in the Machine’ and ‘The Shadow Traps’. It begins as a brief and fairly conventional biography before looking at Le Prince’s disappearance and proffering a few theories as to what might have happened to him in 1890.
It is meant to be accessible and not overly technical, however, as will become apparent, it is only by combining the human with some of the technical aspects of the story that we can fully appreciate the pressures facing Le Prince in the time just prior to his disappearance.
This book is not meant to be a definitive biography. This is because, in the one hundred and twenty-seven years since Le Prince’s disappearance, there remains a huge and significant amount of the story still to be uncovered. As I said at the end of ‘A Ghost in the Machine’:
“And although the answers might seem to lie in a shadowed and elliptical past, what we do have now is a city full of clues. There is still so much to be found here in the libraries and and archives, and the buildings still standing that were once the forges and the foundries of Leeds; here maybe at the Tetley archives, maybe in the Old Railway Works that sit on the edge of the new Hunslet Stray.
And we have a city full of ghosts. The ghosts of Roundhay, Park Square and Leeds Bridge; and the ghosts in the machines that drove Le Prince to such agonies. And they are, all of them, waiting to make our acquaintance.
And so in conclusion, if there can be a conclusion, perhaps the True History of Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince is the best kind of story – the kind that comes to us incomplete; the kind that is up to us to finish.”
In that spirit, this book is a jerry-built creation, in parts a biography; a case-book full of clues; a re-discovery of the pioneer days of early film; a series of digressions, and a work whose content is made from the paralipomena, the footnotes and margin-scribbles of history.
And at the heart of it all, the incomplete and ever twisting story of Le Prince remains suffused with mystery and with ambiguity, and this gives us not the stasis of conventional biography, the unmoving timelines of the dead, but a main protagonist still possessed of the opaque and shifting energies of the living.
I recently Tweeted one of my Updates, which went:
"Regarding the disappearance of Le Prince: one of the biggest clues has been hiding in plain sight for over 85 years....."
I received a reply which I took to be a question (the entire message consisted of just four question marks). My own response to that was this, which I thought I should post here too:
"All who have studied Le Prince…
There now follows a brief update the size of a tweet!:
Regarding the disappearance of Le Prince: one of the biggest clues has been hiding in plain sight for over 85 years.....
I'm lucky enough to have more people to thank for their pledges, and although progress might seem slow, things are ticking along and I will be pitching 'The Shadow Traps' at the 'Margate Bookie' literary festival in August, with other events in the pipeline as well. So without fruther ado, a heart-felt 'thank you' to:
One of the things that has always struck me about Le Prince: so many of his contemporaries, both real and fictional, have gone on to become such vivid and significant figures in popular culture that it is often hard to tell who was real and who wasn’t – Oscar Wilde; Jack the Ripper; Queen Victoria; Buffalo Bill; Annie Oakley, these and others have themselves appeared in so many plays, novels and…
A quick update to mark the first week of my campaign. I think it's safe to say that it's been a slow start (we're at 1%) - but a start nonetheless, and that is down to nine generous people, so I'd like to say a big thank you to them!
So thank you to:
These people are helping to fund The Shadow Traps (being a true history of the life, work and mysterious disappearance of Louis Le Prince, creator of the world's first film).