From its inception in 1839 photography had tended to model itself on academic painting, and photographic prints were displayed as portraits, landscapes or even reconstructions of classic history painting. Rejlander and Henry Peach Robinson, for instance, used multiple negatives to recreate academic or the Pre-Raphaelite narrative paintings - though in all probability it was precisely the camera’s ability to capture natural phenomena with such visual acuity and accuracy that prompted the early Pre Raphaelites to delineate the minutiae of reality in the hyper visual way they did. Contra wise, Impressionism’s emphasis on the artist’s individual brush stroke was a reaction against the finished surface of photography itself inherited from academic painting. Muybridge promoted himself as an artist and had from the beginning insisted on his artistic status by signing his work. But it was a laborious process: the photographic prints were made by laying glass negatives on photo-sensitive paper and required many seconds of exposure even if the light was reasonably good. Consequently, embarking on a project that involved carting huge twenty-four inch plates over rough terrain in the Yosemites was in itself heroic. One of the photographs from this project depicts Muybridge perched on the edge of a precipitous mountain, and this was to constitute valuable evidence of his insanity when finally acquitted on justifiable manslaughter charges for killing his wife’s lover.
Muybridge was not the first to capture the epic grandeur of the Yosemites, which had been accorded special protected status in 1865 when the Civil War was still raging, and attracted an influx of tourists and photographers. The first to set up his camera was Charles Watkins who captured the land as if it was God’s true wilderness, his images of massive rock faces and mirror-like pools of water summoning up a prelapsarian Eden. Muybridge’s images were probably equally contrived, for he hewed down trees if they got in his way, but less wedded to the mythology of the uninhabited pristine West waiting for the settlers to claim it. His images tend towards the dramatic and often feature fallen trees and piles of dead branches as if only too aware of the inexorable laws of entropy that rule over all natural things; Turner rather than Constable, despite his passion for clouds, would seem to be his inspiration. It was on the strength of these first pictures, especially the stereoscopic ones of the wilderness, that his reputation as an artist/photographer began to develop.
While by no means a political activist Muybridge may have been aware of the way legends were emerging to sanction the winning of the West and did not close his eyes to what was taking place around him. It was the railways that had forced the indigenous Indian tribes from their land and into reservations. The US army fought its second great war on behalf of the railway corporations against the Indians who were sabotaging the railway lines in a last ditch attempt to prevent the decimation of the bison and the devastation not only of their hunting grounds but of their culture. These railway wars came to a climax in 1867 when General Sherman was sent to rout out all opposition and Muybridge was sent to record the Modoc war. We would now describe him as an embedded photographer. This documentation was not art but it did bear witness to the ruthless progress of America’s policy of Manifest Destiny and recorded the lives of those whose life and culture had been rendered invisible by the forces that were thrusting the western territories into modernity. Similarly, when sent to Central America and to Guatemala in 1875, he recorded life on the coffee plantations where the indigenous peoples had been reduced to virtual slavery as indentured labour. Muybridge photographed the entire process of coffee cultivation from the clearing of the forests to its shipping to the US, its main importer.
In adition he took many photographs of the ruins of baroque churches, jungle landscapes, and bare breasted Guatemalan laundresses. These reveal a more artistic eye though they did not sell well. It was during this period that domestic issues began to intrude on his career. In February 1878 Muybridge was tried for the murder of his wife’s lover, a certain Major Larkyns, a known adventurer and con man, but was acquitted by the jury who presumably considered it justifiable to kill for adultery. In May 1871 Muybridge had married Flora Stone who worked as a retoucher at Nahl’s Photographic Gallery. He was 42 and she 21 and was often left to her own devices when Muybridge was absent. Two years into the marriage she met Major Larkyns. In May 1874 a child christened Floredo Helios was born during Muybridge’s absence. Larkyns had been warned by Muybridge to keep away from Flora and not to communicate with her. Consequently when shown a letter proving that the communication was still extant and that the child was probably not his but Larkyn’s, Muybridge acted swiftly. He immediately travelled to where Larkyns worked, asked to speak with him, and shot him dead at the open door of his house where a card game was going on. Muybridge then surrended himself to the authorities. Part of the evidence for the defence was the photograph of Muybridge seated on the edge of the rock looking out into the abyss – a sure indication of insanity - but his defence lawyers may also have cited as extenuating material the head injury he had sustained when his coach was involved in an accident, for such injuries were said to effect character and to dispose the individual towards violent acts.Despite the scandal of the trial Muybridge’s reputation as a photographer had been building up substantially during all this time. One of his many projects was with the Central Pacific Railroad and through this he was asked by Leland Stanford, the president of that company, to settle a certain matter pertaining to whether a trotting horse had all four legs off the ground at any time. This was a matter of great disputation among racing men and artists, who tended to depict the trotting or galloping horse with all four legs outstretched in rocking horse style (e.g. Gericault). Muybridge’s first attempt in 1872 to freeze the action of Stanford’s horse Occident failed, but in April of the following year he was able to demonstrate that all four feet were clearly lifted from the ground. The murder trial had taken place in 1875 and two years later Muybridge felt able to resume his photographic career by making a spectacular panorama of San Francisco using eleven 18 x 22 inch plates that covered the whole city. This project was repeated later in the same year to create a panorama of over 17 feet. These panoramas were expressions of civic pride and were taken from the top of Nob Hill where the super rich railroad executives lived in ostentatious luxury. Muybridge had already documented Leland Stanford’s palatial residence. This was a patrician view of San Francisco and Muybridge’s prints show little evidence of activity; the streets seem strangely quiet for the capital of commerce that it purported to be. For this was California’s Silver Age which promised to all and sundry the American dream. But the truth of the matter was that it was only the railroad barons and their like who reaped the benefits of this expansion, and this gross inequality, the source of the third area of conflict to overtake America after the civil war and the war against the Indians, fuelled
In 1877 Muybridge was once again working with Leland Stanford though it’s not clear who approached whom. By this time he had improved the shutter mechanism and was using better chemistry for sensitizing plates, and in 1877 the results earned him a medal at the San Francisco Industrial Exhibition. In 1878 Muybridge adopted Rejlander’s suggestion to use a battery of cameras to take exposures in sequence. At Palo Alto a long shed was constructed alongside a track. It was fitted with twelve cameras that were triggered when the horse broke against a thread stretched across the race track so that Muybridge was able to create a succession of photographs that would eventually constitute a continuous cycle of motion. Palo Alto was transformed into a laboratory of movement. A white wall, marked off with verticals twenty one inches apart as if it was a giant ruler, was erected alongside the race track and a row of cameras set up along side it. This time the trigger mechanism was set off by a clockwork-driven electrical contact that released the shutter at precise intervals but the results were still more or less silhouettes since Muybridge was still using the wet collodion method. The results, nonetheless, were amazing for artists and scientists alike, as well as for the racing fraternity, and Muybridge became a celebrity reanimating the results in his highly popular magic lantern lectures.
Basically up till that time photography had only been able to capture what was seen by the human eye. Now photography could provide utterly new information previously hidden from our perception. From horses Muybridge moved on to birds in flight and other animals in motion and using twice the number of cameras as previously , he began to take photographs from different angles. He even included himself wielding an axe. These ushered in a series of nude photographs going through motion studies. The human studies remain anonymous simply illustrating a particular everyday movement or athletic feats such as somersaults, etc., rather than the person executing them . By this time, the fundamental elements of cinema were in place through a combination of photographs, the magic lantern, and the zootrope. Muybridge was being feted all over Europe, and in 1881, was introduced in Paris to the physiologist Marey, the portrait photographer Nadar, and Hermann von Helmholtz. Marey who was working in a similar area but within a stricter scientific remit, came up with a camera that showed multiple exposures on a single plate--these images were in all likelihood the source material for Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase as well as many Futurist paintings. What Muybridge took from this trip was the process of dry plate photochemistry which meant that the film could be pre-processed in the factory making redundant the much more laborious technique of wet-plate photography on site.
The following year Muybridge was giving presentations at the highly distinguished Royal Institution, a London research centre, as well as at the Royal Academy of Arts. But Muybridge was to suffer one last crisis when Stanford published the results of his studies as JDB Stillman’s The Horse in Motion without his knowledge . Published without any acknowledgement or recognition of Muybridge’s ground-breaking contributions, the book resulted in his exclusion from the Royal Institution and with it the promise of
However, despite intense disappointment Muybridge was able to continue his research when his project was taken up by the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia. One of the most influential members of the committee responsible for considering Muybridge’s projects was the painter Thomas Eakins who was interested in the contribution sequence photography might make to art education. This time, Muybridge used the new dry plate system and a single camera with multiple lenses imported from England, the shutters of which were governed by a single control. His subject matter was incredibly varied, ranging from animals and birds, patients with various disabilities, later to be a source of inspiration to Francis Bacon, plus professional models taking on classical and everyday stances. Between 1884 and 1885 he produced over a hundred thousand photographs and published eleven volumes of Animal Locomotion though, because of the high cost of photogravure plates, only forty full sets were sold. Muybridge continued to lecture in the States and in Europe and in 1901 published The Human Figure in Motion. Finally in 1904 Muybridge returned to Kingston on Thames to live out the last years of his life with his family. He died that same year of prostate cancer. In his will he bequeathed his Zoopraxiscope together with the negatives and plates of his figures in motion to the Borough of Kingston. By some strange coincidence, both Muybridge and Marey, the two major early contributors to cinematography, were born in 1830 and died in 1904.Whereas the British film Institute exhibition focused on the development of photographic techniques and technologies, Tate Britain have other aesthetic criteria in their sights, ones that warrant this as an exhibition geared to an artistic rather than a purely scientific discourse. This raises questions about the demarcation line between the two, for they are closely linked. And binding them together is the intriguing phenomenon by which we seem more captivated and entranced by the visual re-presentation of reality than by the actual experience of reality that gives rise to
Did Muybridge see his photographs as beautiful? It would be a mistake to ignore that he considered himself primarily an artist and that his photographs are imbued with the aesthetic sensibility of his time which makes itself felt even in the most documentary of his works; a mistake too to discount their entertainment value which by making a threesome with art and science has enabled us to re-enchant our vision and ultimately extend it into the new magical realms of the cinema.
Anna Leung © November 2010
Anna Leung is a London-based
artist and educator now semi-retired from teaching at Birkbeck College
but taking occasional informal groups to current art exhibitions.
Anna Leung is a London-based artist and educator now semi-retired from teaching at Birkbeck College but taking occasional informal groups to current art exhibitions.