Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Carl Gregory and the U.S. School of Military Cinematography (1918)

In January 1918, America's first school of Military Cinematography started at Columbia University in New York. Still photographers and motion picture cameramen were trained for the U.S. Signal Corps that had been assigned to record America's involvement in the First World War. A key role in setting up this school was played by pioneering cinematographer Carl Louis Gregory.

Left: Cover booklet on U.S. School of Military Cinematography (1918). Right: U.S. Signal Corps Lieutenant Carl L. Gregory. Photograph courtesy Buckey Grimm 

Gregory's name is listed as chief instructor in motion picture photography in a 1918 booklet on the U.S. School of Military Cinematography, that was kindly supplied to us by Buckey Grimm. A copy of this historical document can be read and downloaded here.

Commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant, Gregory took charge of all lessons in military photography for the students at Columbia University. He worked closely on this with a British cinematographer Arthur H.C. Sintzenich - we will discuss his involvement in this project in an upcoming weblog. Another instructor in motion picture photography at this school was Victor Fleming, the well-known future director of Gone with the Wind.

Early Career in Cinematography

When Gregory entered Columbia University he had already earned himself a reputation as one of the foremost cinematographers in the American film industry. Born in Walnut, Kansas, in 1882, Gregory opened his first photography studio in 1905. In 1908 he transferred to the U.S. Reclamation Service where he was in charge of filing and classifying negatives, prints and lantern slides. It was here that Gregory had his first real experiences with making movies. In 1909 he joined the Edison Company as a cameraman and director. A year later he joined the Thanhouser Company and became the studio's chief cameraman. During the First World War Gregory was cinematographer for the Williamson brothers when they shot their groundbreaking underwater films in the West Indies. Gregory in 1916 worked with Sintzenich on a similar project, shooting underwater footage. Both would meet again when they set up the U.S. School of Military Cinematography at Columbia University in January 1918.

Carl Gregory, seated on a box behind his camera, at work for the U.S. Signal Corps (1918). Photograph Jonathan Silent Film Collection

Experiences at Columbia University 

Gregory's technical skills as a cameraman were highly acclaimed. A Moving Picture World article published July 10, 1915, mentions he was the first American photographer made an honorary member of the Royal Society of Photographers of Great Britain. After the Great War, the May 10, 1919, Moving Picture World published Gregory's article about his experiences as chief instructor at the U.S. School of Military Cinematography. In it he reported the school initially was handicapped by a severe shortage of film cameras. At the campus of Columbia University two large chemical labs were converted into a still and motion picture laboratory. A large building near the Cathedral of St. John served as barracks for the Signal Corps recruits. As described by Gregory, the crash course in motion picture photography took about six weeks:

".. After they had been taught the preliminary operations of setting-up, threading, cranking, tilting and panoraming, they were first permitted to take short sample scenes of familiar subjects about the University, and then after having demonstrated their ability to handle the camera, they were given definite assignments to obtain certain kinds of pictures, at events which were happening in the city or of various activities in the near-by camps."

In a letter to his mother Gregory also described his experiences at Columbia University:

"I am in charge of all photographic instruction ... So far I have had over two hundred students nearly half of whom have been sent away to go across to France with a class of twenty ready and waiting for orders to go. My hours are long but the work is pleasant for the boys are interested in their work and eager to learn and the University is probably as pleasant a place to work as any place that one could find in the city. The hours are 8 A.M. to 6 P.M. and every 6th day I am officer of the day when I have to be on duty from 5.45 A.M. to 9.00 P.M."

Carl Gregory (left) with the U.S. Signal Corps. The picture was probably taken at Columbia University in 1918. Courtesy Buckey Grimm

Gregory after the First World War was named Dean of Photography at the New York Institute of Photography. He still kept his hand in the business, directing and photographing movies, as well as publishing books on motion picture photography. In the 1940s he worked for the Library of Congress and was the first person to restore an historic collection of early films on paper prints. Gregory was working as Motion Picture Engineer at the National Archives at the time, and he had just designed and built an Optical Printer for shrunken and damaged film. They took the material to the Archives and Gregory modified the Optical Printer and was able to successfully copy the material.  Some of this material was used for the RKO Pathé "Flicker Flashbacks" Series back in the mid 1940s. Thus a precious collection of early American cinema was saved and restored on film.

Carl Gregory died in 1951 at his home in Van Nuys, California. More information on Gregory's fascinating life and work can be found in the article Life through a Lens by Charles "Buckey" Grimm for Film History journal (2001).

With special thanks to Charles "Buckey" Grimm for his input on this weblog.


  1. school of military! very nice and impressive blog to be reading tonight. i wish you the very best for the rest of your posts and i hope you have a great time, lots of love.

    1. Thank you for these encouraging comments!