Journalist, novelist, photographer, and cinematic pioneer Alexander Robert Black was born to Scottish immigrants Peter and Sarah MacCrae Black on February 7, 1859 in New York City. After receiving a public education, he became a reporter at the Brooklyn Daily Times at the age of 16. On October 4, 1881, Mr. Black married Elizabeth Helmle, and their daughter Mabel Hawthorne was born two years later. He became the official stenographer for the Brooklyn court system while serving as editor for the Brooklyn Daily Times. At around this time, Mr. Black became acquainted with the newest amateur photography fad - the Kodak camera. He became such an expert he was dubbed "a Kodak fiend," contributing several articles and giving lectures on the subject. His lectures featured prints that were projected onto a large screen in a manner reminiscent of Father Athanasius Kircher's engravings which were projected using a magic lantern during the seventeenth century. Mr. Black's photographic vignettes of city life resembled Charles Dickens' narratives that were popular during the Victorian Era. Throughout 1889, he traveled across the Eastern United States presenting glass slides and narratives that comprised his "Life through a Detective Camera" lecture series.
By 1890s, he was promoting Pictorialist photography as a powerful art form in his lectures, and was often accompanied by American Impressionist painter William Merritt Chase. Gradually, the lectures shifted from instant still photography to sequential shots that were designed to mimic action. In 1894, he presented Miss Jerry, which depicted the daily life of a female reporter on the streets of New York. The double-lantern projected slides dissolved every 15 seconds, which made the sequences appear to move against the stationary background. Mr. Black provided most of the voices, changing them for the various 'characters'. These early forays into cinema were known as "picture plays" or "photo plays." According to a 1915 article in Picture Play Weekly, "The photo-play era began with Alexander Black." Over the next several years, Mr. Black presented picture plays that included A Capital Courtship (1896) that featured Presidents Grover Cleveland and and William McKinley, and Ourselves as Others See Us (1897). His final picture play was The Girl and the Guardsman (1899).
As his recognition grew, so did his professional reputation. Mr. Black served as art director of the New York Sunday World for several years, wrote novels, and worked for William Randolph Hearst first as graphics editor for his Newspaper Feature Service and later as art editor for King Features Syndicate. In 1935, a year after his wife's death, Mr. Black married Florence Edith O'Dell. He continued his cinematic experimentation, and produced several 16mm films. He collaborated with his son Malcolm on the 1938 documentary, Alexander Black, Grandfather of Picture Plays. Mr. Black died on May 1, 1940 at the age of 81. Though largely forgotten today, Paramount Pictures founder Adolph Zukor acknowledged his rightful place as a cinematic pioneer in his letter to Alexander Black, which said in part, "Before you presented Miss Jerry the screen only had still pictures. Then came your 'slow movie', in which you gave the effect of movement - long before the motion picture mechanism was perfected."
2016 Alexander Black (URL: http://prabook.org/web/person-view.html?profileId=1082320).
2016 Alexander Black: The Grandfather of the Dramatic Motion Picture (URL: http://nufstuff.mcn.org/ab/abhome.html).
1893 The American Amateur Photographer, Vol. V (New York: Outing Company, Limited), p. 34.
1983 Film before Griffith edited by John L. Fell (Berkeley: University of California Press), p. 237.
2014 Making Movies into Art: Picture Craft from the Magic Lantern to Early Hollywood by Kaveh Askari (London: Palgrave), pp. 19-41.
2012 Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema: Alexander Black by Stephen Herbert (URL: http://www.victorian-cinema.net/black).
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