If I had a time machine and a list of events I’d like to witness, the 1900 Paris Exposition just might be in the top ten. (Or at least the top 25..there’s a lot of things I’d like to see!) If you haven’t heard of it, it was…well…just look at this:
As I took in the wonders of that fabulous Art Nouveau architecture–dressed in a lovely Parisian summer frock and my best hat, of course–I’d hightail it straight to the Festival Hall. For this is where the Lumières had an exhibit demonstrating moving pictures. On a 70-foot wide screen suspended in that vast, beautiful hall. Yes, a screen of that size in the year 1900! For whatever reason, this momentous occasion has practically been forgotten by history–you’re lucky to even find a picture of it.
The 1900 Paris Exposition (also called the Universal Exposition or, in French, Exposition Universelle) was an exciting event to begin with. Even more so than previous world’s fairs, it would both showcase the achievements of the past 100 years and herald the coming of the new century, with all its promises of grand technological advancements.
The site of the fair covered 280 acres in the heart of Paris, stretching from the Place de la Concorde to the Champ de Mars. Along with several vast new buildings and the beautiful Pont Alexandre III, it included some structures from previous expositions like the mighty Eiffel Tower. In its eight month run from April 14 to November 12, 50 million people (!) would visit to take in the wonders of science, communication, art, agriculture, astronomy, and more from around the world. International congresses would also be held there, and even the 1900 Olympic games.
A number of motion picture companies would have exhibits at the fair, but the Lumières were specially invited to create the most prominent exhibition–you might say it was cinema’s formal “debut.” Initial plans involved hanging a vast screen from the Eiffel Tower, but this didn’t last long. Louis Lumière would instead hang the screen in the Festival Hall, built inside the 1889 fair’s Gallery of Machines. The hall was an elaborate structure topped by a vast stained glass dome, supported by broad arches and surprisingly slender pillars. Walls and ceilings were festooned with art nouveau statues and flourishes and the whole thing was painted in shades of gold, soft yellow, blue, pink, and grey. There was seating capacity along the sides for 25,000 people and plenty of room to roam. Visitors entered through a single door, called “low and unstylish” by one contemporary writer, but imagine the effect of suddenly stepping into a vast, colorful hall, faced with the massive moving images on that screen. It must’ve been surreal.
A regular-size projector was used for the films and was placed 200 feet from the screen, with “remarkable” results. He originally made a screen that was about 100 feet wide and about 80 feet tall, but had to cut it down to approximately 70 feet wide and 55 feet tall to fit in the newly-built Festival Hall. It would also be kept wet so the images were as luminous as possible. Louis recalled:
“To avoid the difficulty of moistening the screen at the time of projection, the screen was kept immersed in a large rectangular tank of water, and each evening was raised out of the tank by a hand-winch under the cupola after removing the trap door that closed the tank during the day. I had to be satisfied with an arc of only 100 amperes, which, however, was sufficient because of the optical instruments used. The demonstrations occurred each evening, without trouble, throughout the Exposition.”
There were over 300 free 30-minute screenings during the fair using a total of 150 films, the sort of brief Lumière products still familiar to us today. Louis had hoped to make fancier new films just for the occasion, but it was not to be:
“To obtain better definition in the images projected upon so large a screen, I had a camera built, with the collaboration of Mr. Carpentier, capable of producing images, 4.5 by 6 cm., having perfect definition…Unfortunately, the camera was not finished in time for the more ambitious programs we had planned, so we kept to the original small films.”
Need I say more about what an incredible event this would’ve been to see in person? The gorgeous Art Nouveau fantasyland of the Exposition–in Paris no less; the beauty of the Festival Hall and the vastness of it; the surreal vision of that giant moving image hanging in space–what an epic experience. And what a fitting herald for the great cinema to come.
Lumière, Louis. “The Lumière Cinematograph.” Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, December 1936, Vol. XXVII, No. 6.
Toulet, Emmanuelle. Birth of the Motion Picture. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1995.