Man in Locomotion

One pioneering photographer constructed—not replicated—reality.

Born Edward Muggeridge in Kingston-upon-Thames in 1830, the Anglo-American workaholic Eadweard Muybridge looms large in the history of photography. Traveller, adventurer, artist, photographer, entrepreneur, inventor, showman, jealous husband, murderer, he is best remembered today for the more than 20,000 stop-action images in which he captured successive stages of animal and human locomotion. For his invention in 1879 of the zoopraxiscope, a device containing a turning glass disc for projecting “moving” pictures, he is considered one of the fathers of cinema.

More than a century after his death in 1904, Muybridge’s work is enjoying a reappraisal. While he saw his work as serious and educational, audiences today see it as playful and slightly weird. Last year at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC, the exhibition Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change was the first museum exhibition to examine all aspects of his achievement. London’s Tate Britain also mounted a show of 150 of his images. In May the Vancouver Art Gallery opened a show of Muybridge’s work alongside that of contemporary artists he has inspired.

A Canadian play about his life, Studies in Motion, was mounted in Vancouver and Toronto to rapt audiences. A British obsessive named Stephen Herbert has created a massive website named The Compleat Muybridge, gathering online every known Muybridge photograph, every mention in the media, every book, links to every YouTube video inspired by his stop-action images.

Joining the commotion around this restless and fascinating figure is a compact biography, Eadweard Muybridge by Marta Braun, a professor at Ryerson University. Two full-scale biographies of the man had appeared in the 1970s, Eadweard Muybridge: The Father of the Motion Picture by Gordon Hendricks and Muybridge: Man in Motion by Robert Haas, to which all subsequent biographies, Braun’s included, are in debt. However, Braun adds some surprising twists to the story.

Muybridge’s father was a successful grain merchant but the young Edward had no interest in the family business and, at 22, he left to make his fortune in New York as a salesman of books for the London Printing and Publishing Co. A short time later, he set out for San Francisco, a difficult undertaking in the days before the transcontinental railroad.

San Francisco after the 1849 gold rush was a boom town of 35,000 and Muybridge prospered, opening a book store and furnishing the libraries of the newly rich. He also sold photo engravings of the type featuring the misty atmospheric effects beloved by the Victorians. When, after five years, he decided to return to New York by stagecoach, Muybridge was involved in an accident in Texas when the coach’s brakes failed. He suffered a concussion. A lawsuit against the stagecoach company—the first of many suits in his litigious life—yielded enough cash to return home to England for a time. There he exhibited, at the 1860 International Exhibition, his invention for an improved plate printing process and for a washing machine.

When he returned to San Francisco in 1866, he had a new name, Helios, and a new profession, photographer. Photography was difficult, arduous work. Cameras were large and cumbersome and the photographer had to coat his wet plates chemically before exposing them. As Helios, Muybridge created a mobile studio to make landscape photos throughout the West that could be turned into stereoscopic views for a 3D effect, a popular form of entertainment in the 19th century. His first big success was a series of views of Yosemite, where he took his flying studio up rocky inclines by pack mules and risked his life taking pictures poised on narrow ledges. Engravings of his work sold briskly.

In 1868, the U.S. government commissioned him to document the military posts and harbours of Alaska, recently acquired from Russia. Americans were skeptical that this frozen wilderness was worth $7.2 million, and called it “Seward’s folly,” after Secretary of State William Seward, who negotiated the purchase. Sailing up the British Columbia coast en route to his assignment, he stopped to photograph Victoria and Nanaimo—the only time he worked in Canada.

When he was 40, Muybridge shot a series of photographs for Woodward’s Gardens, a popular San Francisco amusement centre that included hot air balloons, circus freaks, a museum, skating rink and art gallery. It was here that he met Flora Stone, a woman half his age, whom he promptly married. Obsessed with his work, Muybridge left his young wife alone for months at a time and it is not surprising that she found consolation in the arms of another, an English rogue named Harry Larkyns.

When Muybridge learned that Flora’s son had actually been fathered by Larkyns, he hunted his rival down and shot him dead. His lawyer argued the insanity defence—citing the photographer’s earlier concussion—but it was unnecessary. Muybridge was acquitted by a jury of married men who found the homicide fully justified. Flora, disgraced and penniless, died a year later and Muybridge placed the child in an orphanage. The boy became a farm labourer and died an alcoholic.

Muybridge was an official photographer of the Central Pacific Railroad, which is how he met the railway baron Leland Stanford, later governor of California and a noted horse breeder. Stanford invited Muybridge to his ranch in Palo Alto to show through instantaneous photographs (Muybridge was experimenting with these) the full range of motions made by a galloping horse, motions too fast and too complex for the eye to see. In 1878, working with carpenters, an electrician and an engineer provided by Stanford, Muybridge created a new shutter mechanism and a system of much shorter exposure times than any used before. He set up a shed with twelve cameras along the track whose shutters were tripped consecutively when the horse ran over pieces of string stretched across the track. “The horse took his own picture,” ran one newspaper headline.

Muybridge became a popular lecturer, giving magic lantern presentations across the country of his horse photographs with the aid of his new invention, the zoopraxiscope. This gizmo used a rotating disc with horses in their sequential poses around the edges, which gave the illusion of movement. While Muybridge let his audiences believe that they were watching photographic images, the horses were in fact drawn by artists, based on photographs.

Muybridge made a triumphant trip back to Europe where he showed his zoopraxiscope images to the prince and princess of Wales, the scientist Thomas Huxley and the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson.

He returned to the U.S. and found a new patron, the University of Pennsylvania, which expected him to add photographic validity to various science projects. Muybridge complied in part, but mainly he kept to his own artistic agenda. In a two-year period at the university starting in 1884, his obsessions reached their full flowering.

Using 36 lenses and the recently introduced dry plate process, which was much faster, he shot thousands of sequential images of men, women, children, the diseased, domestic animals and wild animals and presented them, as Braun writes, in a “covert sociological hierarchy.” Some are clothed, many are naked as they walk up stairs, run, jump, dance, twirl parasols, throw a bowl of water, carry a basket or a Grecian jug. He wanted his images to aid painters in accurately depicting bodies in motion. When this massive trove of images was eventually published, the leaders of the university were perplexed, for it was unclear what they contributed to science.

All of Muybridge’s negatives are now lost, but in 1999, a set of contact proofs were found in storage at the Smithsonian. Neither of Muybridge’s two main biographers had access to these, but Marta Braun examined them closely. What she found is the most significant part of her book. Whereas there should be 36 images for each set of movements photographed by Muybridge, fewer than half of the sequences actually have this many. It takes a trained eye like Braun’s to notice what was masked in Muybridge’s presentation of the material in his book Animal Locomotion. Evidently, the photographer had many technical difficulties: the shutter did not fire, or fired too soon or too late. Negatives were fogged and could not be used. Muybridge, therefore, had made up for the missing shots by renumbering, substitution, expansion, insertion of shots from other sequences.

The proof sheets, she writes, “show us that Animal Locomotion is a project whose every element has been subject to one kind of manipulation or another.”

What makes Muybridge so influential among contemporary photo-based artists such as Jeff Wall and Stan Douglas is that “he used his camera to construct and deconstruct visible reality, not replicate it.”

In his later years, Muybridge returned to Europe to give further demonstrations of his zoopraxiscope and to try to sell Animal Locomotion, but by then the technology of film had progressed and he could not keep up. With the advent of cinema in 1895, his career was over. Braun points out that Muybridge’s zoopraxiscope should be seen as pointing forward not to movies, but to something else entirely: animated cartoons.

Marta Braun has a grasp of enormous amounts of detail concerning the history of photography, as well as a lively understanding of the social and cultural history in which her subject existed. Her slim book punches above its
weight.