Holmes, E. Burton (1870-1958)*

Burton Holmes, on the right, with his cameraman, Oscar Depue (1869-1960) in 1911. Between them is an Urban Bioscope 35mm camera. Photographer unknown.

Although today a largely forgotten figure, in his lifetime, E. Burton Holmes was a major media celebrity in the US, sufficiently so to be awarded a star in the pavement of Hollywood Boulevard. Although probably not the originator of the term, it was Holmes who was the first leading exponent of the ‘travelogue’ film.

Every autumn and winter, from the 1890s until the 1950s, Holmes toured around the US giving travel lectures to audiences of hundreds, sometimes thousands of people. These were based on his own expeditions all across the world which he carried out in the summer months.

An integral part of the lectures were the photographs that he himself had taken on these expeditions, but from as early as 1897, he often employed moving image cameramen to come with him. The first of these was Oscar Depue, who appears in the photograph above.

Initially, the footage was screened as a novelty supplement at the end of the lectures, but as the technology developed, it became increasingly integral to Holmes’ performance. Eventually, from 1915, Holmes began directing free-standing films in which he himself would appear in exotic locations around the globe and the travelogue film genre was launched. 

Burton Holmes as an ethnographic film-maker

Holmes produced a large number of travelogue films, many of which contain passages of undoubted ethnographic interest. Although he travelled all over the world, he had a particular interest in Asia, especially Japan, which he visited many times. A short history of his film-making activities is available here

With Depue acting as the cameraman, Holmes also made what are probably the earliest ethnographic films about Native peoples of the US. These were shot during an expedition to Arizona in August 1898 and include footage of the Hopi Snake Dance as performed at Orayvi that year as well as three short films of a Navajo “tournament” which they shot at Tolani Lake on their return journey from Orayvi. The following year, Holmes and Depue returned to film the Snake Dance as performed at Wàlpi, again stopping at Tolani Lake to screen the material that they had shot of the Navajo tournament to the participants – in effect, a very early example of a “feedback screening”.

Unfortunately, this footage is currently lost and for a long time, it was misattributed to the Thomas Edison organisation. Now that it has been correctly identified as the work of Holmes and Depue, there is a greater possibility that it might emerge from the archives.

Texts : Holmes 1901, Depue 1947, Holmes 1953, Caldwell 1977, Henley and Whiteley ms.