Measure of the Moon: Evening Talk by Irfan Shah

This week we hear from researcher Irfan Shah on Leeds’ contribution to the development of photography. Irfan will be giving a talk on this subject here at the Central Library next Wednesday (August 22), with tickets being available to book on our Ticketsource page…

When I started researching the story of Louis Le Prince – the French inventor who shot the world’s first films here in Leeds in 1888 – it soon became apparent that when he arrived in the town in 1866, he encountered a place that was already more than typically alive to the possibilities of photography. And while Le Prince’s talents seemed indisputable to me, what I also began to appreciate was that his achievements had come, not from these talents alone, but from the remarkable synchronicity that put him at exactly the right place at the right time in history.

Leeds’ contribution to the development of photography consisted of numerous significant but little-known achievements. Leeds scientist, Joseph Bancroft Reade, for example, managed to fix images from a solar microscope as early as 1839, the world’s third photographic society was formed in the town in 1852 (a year after Paris and New York but before London) and the oldest known commercial catalogue featuring photographs was the ‘Catalogue of Photographic Apparatus illustrated by Photographs of Such’ published in 1855 by Harvey and Reynolds on Briggate. The first wave of great photographers included many Leeds pioneers, from Frank Meadow Sutcliffe (who worked at the Tetley Brewery for a while) to Claudius Galen Wheelhouse who produced one of the world’s first photographic travelogues, the ‘Narrative of a Yacht Voyage in the Mediterranean’ and the list of achievements goes on, creating a picture of an industrial town rich in expertise and ambition, and the perfect place for an inventor like Le Prince to find himself.

From this initial feeling – that the story of the birth of film in Leeds was bigger than just one person – came the idea for the ‘The Measure of the Moon,’ an illustrated talk which tries to trace a line from seventeenth century astronomy, through the pioneer days of photography to the invention of motion pictures and beyond, paying particular attention to Leeds’ role in all of this.

Putting together the talk, I gave myself one central criteria, that each story had to connect with the next. There had to be a link – a person, or location or idea – which took us from one chapter to another and as a result, the talk takes a meandering path from Middleton in Leeds to Japan and back. Some of the talk is a little speculative, some bits might be messy, bits might be wrong (I continue to explore, discover and re-think), but I hope that it comes together as an interesting set of tales and a start to a conversation about our city as a hub for innovation and intellectual adventure.

One unexpected pleasure of giving this particular talk at the Central Library is that it turns out that the building itself is surrounded by the locations of many of the old photographic studios. Sarony’s for example, at 15 Park Place, offered the taking of visiting cards and portrait shots with ‘two illustrations on view to the public, one a coarse looking woman, the other a woman with delicate features, pleasing if not beautiful’; John Berry Boden had his studio on Park Lane; Peter Skeolan on Commercial Street and around the corner from the library, on Albion Street, J Navey proclaimed that his ‘photographs on glass stand as yet unrivalled for clearness, beauty and finish.’ Charles Henry Braithwaite had a studio on Briggate where he photographed Buffalo Bill, and John William Ramsden, John Oke , the Photographic Portrait Gallery and William Hanson, all at various times, practised on Park Row (Hanson’s Photographic Atelier offering amongst other things, photographs of babies ‘about Noon on Bright Days’); and on Great George Street by the Town Hall, was the esteemed Edmund Wormald whose photographs make up a large part of the library’s own archive (a lot of what we know about how Leeds looked in the nineteenth century comes from Wormald’s surviving images).

1897. View of the east side of Briggate, showing the entrance to Wood Street, where the two men can be seen chatting towards the left – by Edmund Wormald. 

And so, with efforts currently being made in earnest right now to present Leeds as a capital of culture for 2023 and a possible base for Channel Four, the Measure of the Moon talk will be given, not necessarily by the right person(!) but, fingers crossed, at the right time and most definitely, at exactly the right place!

Irfan Shah

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