Alexander Black

American photographer

Alexander Black was a 'Kodak fiend' in the early '90s, writing press articles on the new snapshot photography. Lecturing in the Eastern U.S. with Life through a Detective Camera, or Ourselves as Others See Us, illustrated with slides made by himself and other amateurs, he recognised the possibilities of developing a screen narrative. In 1894, using professional actors - with Blanche Bayliss in the title role - he shot the exteriors for Miss Jerry, the adventures of a female reporter, around New York, and interiors at the Carbon Studio at 5 West 16th Street. With a double lantern dissolving the slides every fifteen seconds, by using a fixed background the actors appeared to 'move' between key positions within the scene. Black himself spoke all the different parts, changing his voice for each character. In the spring of 1896 it toured the lyceum stages throughout the East, just as the Edison Vitascope was making its screen debut. Miss Jerry was followed by the even more ambitious A Capital Courtship (1896), featuring specially-taken shots of Grover Cleveland and President William McKinley. The ubiquitous appearance of motion picture film screenings didn’t immediately curtail Black’s picture plays, the third and final production being The Girl and the Guardsman (1899).

Black presented his lecture Ourselves as Others See Us many times, the January 1897 performance at the Brooklyn Institute being advertised as 'illustrated by Cinematographe, Chromograph and Stereopticon.' He stayed away from vaudeville theatres, believing that the 'low-brow' audiences would not have the attention span for his presentation medium, which he later referred to as the 'slow movie'. He became a novelist, and editor of graphic items for Hearst's Newspaper Feature Service syndicate. During the 1920s-30s he made a number of 16mm films, exploring cinematic tricks and reflecting on the theme of family memory.

The documentary Alexander Black: Grandfather of Picture Plays (1938), by Black and his son Malcolm, combines home movies with footage from the Paramount Screen Magazine film The Evolution of the Picture Play (1919), a twenty-fifth anniversary celebration of Black’s first picture play performances. This included restaged picture play scenes and performances by Black and by Tracey Tisdell, recreating his 1890s job as Black's magic lantern operator. The homemade documentary re-edited the Paramount film, framing it with 1938 Kodachrome footage of Alexander Black reading a 1919 letter from Paramount President Adolph Zukor affirming Black’s status as a cinema pioneer.

Stephen Herbert (revised November 2012)