150 Woodhouse Lane: A fortunate discovery....

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Here's a photograph from a talk on Le Prince that I gave as part of the Leeds International Film Festival last November. I happen to be standing next to what, at first glance, looks to be the dullest photograph in the world - 

but it's actually a pretty magical place to me. On the right hand edge of the photo is a workshop, 150 Woodhouse Lane, where William Mason & Sons (Carpenters) were located at the end of the nineteenth century. The photograph was taken in the 1970's just before it was knocked down. 

When I started my research on Le Prince in 2012, I learned quite quickly that the inventor had worked on his projectors with a few trusted assistants, in secret, in a workshop at 160 Woodhouse Lane. I must have come across this photograph pretty early on in my research, saw that it was 150 not 160 Woodhouse Lane, but for some reason kept hold of it because at least it had some connection with the street where Le Prince had worked. As I continued my research, and at some point post-2015 (after the documentary I had worked on came out) I learned that the dynamo that powered the lights to Le Prince's projector, had been housed at the Mason's workshop at 150 Woodhouse Lane and connected up to the projector by a thick cable laid across the rooftops of the interving workshops. So, the photograph did have a direct link to the story of the world's first films. Moreover, I learned that the dynamo was powered by a steam engine kept in the yard of 150 Woodhouse Lane (and so apart from anything else, we're talking about steam powered film here!) Trawling through archives, I managed to collect a few anecdotes connected to the building - one of the electricians who assisted Le Prince was electrocuted in this workshop and sent spinning across the floor. And one of the biggest clues, one of the eureka moments I had concerning the mystery of Le Prince's disappearance, came from another incident which took place here.

I found this image in the archives of Leodis, a wonderful organisation connected to Leeds Library which saves photographs of the city through the ages. However, by the time I'd learned the significance of no. 150 I'd forgotten that I had the image! Last year, as I was going through my files I came across it again. The thumbnail picture I had was quite small and not particularly sharp. I went to Leeds Library and asked Leodis if I could see a hi-res version of it. They typed in the reference number I gave them but nothing came up. I knew the reference was correct as I could tell from the font and formatting of my notes that I had copied and pasted the details direct from the Leodis site onto a Word document. Somehow, at some point, the reference had changed and so it seemed that the photo was lost amongst hundreds of thousands of others - fortunately, the assistant at Leodis could see from certain letters in part of the reference code that the image still existed as an original print. And so, the wonderful people there searched it out for me. After they had found it, what added to my delight was the fact that written next to the print itself were a few notes on the building and what had been done there, including a mention that a thousand small mahogany frames had been manufactured in the workshop for Le Prince - a detail which fascinated me as these turned out to be frames in which Le Prince had placed glass slides of the images he had shot on his camera. These glass slides in mahogany frames would have been placed in a belt in the projector and fed past the projector's lens. I had known that frames for the slides had at one time been made of metal, but these mahogany versions were a small revelation. It occurred to me that I would probalby never have come across this information had I found a hi-res image of the workshop in the first place.

There is a filigree link of good fortune about this picture that makes it special: it is a photo of a building taken just before the building was knocked down; a photo I saved even though I didn't appreciate its significance; a photo I then found after I had forgotten about it; a photo whose significance I had learned about in the same timespan in which its reference number was changed so that a hi-res version could not be found at first, and which was only found at all because it was one of a relatively small group of photos whose originals still existed. And it is a photo, the original of which contains new information on Le Prince's work written down on a print that I might not have found had my reference for the digital version of it been correct.

And so there it is, 150 Woodhouse Lane, from where Le Prince powered his projector lights. And however inauspicious this little shed-like structure appears, it is still the nearest I have been able to get to peering in through a window to see what Le Prince and his assistants were up to. And because of that, it is a sliver of magic.

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