There is a dog at the front of the boat. The people he is with start to wave their hankies in the air and tip their hats in greeting. What about the dog? We see a doggy smile, captured on a day out at a Yorkshire pleasure garden 120 years ago.
Of course, it looks like a smile because our brains are predisposed to interpret dog’s faces in the same way that we interpret human faces. We can make some very broad guesses about the meaning of the dog’s relaxed body language, but the truth is that we have very little idea what it is feeling.
But we know that it is not performing for the camera. It is not telling us how to read its face or body.
The early silent travelogues and ‘interest films’, from the 1890s and 1900s particularly, allow us to watch people, mostly non-actors, early in the process of learning what it means to be filmed. In this 1901 video of pleasure-seekers at Sunny Vale Gardens in Hipperholme, we see them waving, joyous as they observe the camera that is observing them in turn.
But smiling or not, the dog still doesn’t understand. I am fascinated every time I see a dog or a baby on camera; they may be able to see the camera and intuit that there are moving, working parts. But they can’t follow that movement and end up at a screen displaying their own image. In this way, the dog in the boat is an unknowing subject, forever living before the awareness of what it means to be filmed.
While already in 1901, the holidaymakers behind the dog know what’s up.
Or do they? Sometimes they seem to be waving in the wrong direction, to the left of the camera. Maybe they are waving at someone out of sight, not the camera after all. Or maybe the boat moved quickly, and the camera couldn’t. But even so, it’s hard to make out a wave in a still or screenshot; their gestures do not make sense recorded except in moving images.
The dog’s face stands out — here there is no knowing gesture. It means the same frozen as it does on film.
At the start of the 15-minute Race for the Muratti Cup, also shot in 1901, we see men displaying the cups and trophies on offer. They stand still, as if a photograph is being taken. They don’t turn the cups around to show us anything more than we would see in one still image. Then caps are raised, with a laugh. And we are back in the world of men mugging for the camera — for moving pictures. They are learning what it means to be seen as they move, and we are watching them learn.
Next, we see racers approach the camera at a diagonal and then vanish behind it, passing beyond the left-hand side of the frame. We experience the race as flashes, which we take for the whole. We learn to watch, as those on the other side of the camera from us learn to be watched. We learn gesture and composition at the same time as they do. What moves us about moments like these in early non-fiction film is the possibility of some feeling or expression unknown being made legible for the first time.
The archive films referenced in this piece were screened at Cinema Rediscovered as part of The World of Friese-Greene, a selection of archive shorts curated by South West Silents' James Harrison as part of Opening Up the Magic Box which marks the centenary of the death of Bristol-born Victorian cinema innovator William Friese-Greene.
Charlotte Geater is originally from Suffolk but lives in Walthamstow, and is a freelance writer and poetry editor. Her poetry has been published in The White Review and Strange Horizons. She won the 2021 UEA New Forms Award for a novel in progress which blends the forms of fiction and essay; it partly focuses on films about rural Suffolk. She is interested in experimental cinema, short films, romantic comedies, and rural life on film.
Follow Charlotte on Twitter @tambourine