Often credited with popularizing the story film in the United States, Edwin S. Porter is most notable for embodying the diverse tendencies of early cinema. Commentators have referred to Porter as "Janus-faced," a figure who pointed toward the medium's future at the same time that he epitomized its period-bound qualities. In particular, Porter pioneered certain aspects of narrative filmmaking, such as linear editing and intertitles, while also adhering to many of early cinema's unique traits, such as temporal overlap and direct address of the camera by performers.
Porter entered the motion picture business as a traveling exhibitor, and that experience probably influenced his early experiments as a filmmaker. Hired by Edison to work on the company's projector in 1900, he soon became the firm's chief cameraman and head of production. From the outset, his interest in the types of transitions possible when moving from one shot to another is evident. Yet, for every film that features a fluid set of linked actions, such as The Great Train Robbery (1903), another one depends upon tableau—the story held together only by the audience's knowledge of the source material, as in Porter's adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1903). Porter's achievements crystallized that year, which also saw the release of Life of an American Fireman and The Gay Shoe Clerk, two of his best-known works, that demonstrate how point of view functions at this time. In Life of an American Fireman, his insistence on showing the event in its entirety from one perspective and then again from another highlights the importance of retaining an established viewpoint, even at the expense of intimating simultaneity. In The Gay Show Clerk, the famous close-up of a stocking-clad ankle demonstrates how magnification of detail can satisfy the viewer's voyeuristic desire for illicit visual pleasures.
Though Porter continued to find success with such nickelodeon-era shorts as The Kleptomaniac and the Winsor McCay-inspired Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (both 1906), his style of filmmaking did not survive the changes wrought by increased narrational self-sufficiency during the transitional period. By 1908, his approach already seemed antiquated, and he was let go by Edison the following year. He continued to work in the industry, lasting into the feature era to become production head at Famous Players in 1912. But his interests focused on the development of cinematic technology from 1915 onward. Fittingly, given his beginnings in the industry, his final lasting contribution was the shepherding of the Simplex projector to a position of supremacy.
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