All manner of life, frozen in time

A new show at Tate Britain looks at the career of Eadweard Muybridge: photographer, technical innovator and forerunner of cinematic art

Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs of bodies in motion have never lost their fascination. They might have been taken for a mixture of artistic and scientific reasons – to help artists depict the figure and medical researchers understand human physiology – but these enduringly strange images of people walking, running, jumping, throwing balls and ascending stairs transcend their original purpose, encouraging other readings and interpretations. Part of their disquieting effect comes from the grid made of threads that Muybridge placed behind his naked subjects; it forms a graphic cage in which these frozen archetypes will perform their actions and gestures forever.

Many artists and imagemakers have paid homage to Muybridge. Francis Bacon transformed the photographer’s wrestlers into images of sexual intimacy and based another painting on Muybridge’s pictures of a paralytic child walking on all fours.

In the 1960s, the psychedelic graphic artist Martin Sharp plundered dozens of his photos in riotously bizarre acid-head collages for Oz magazine. A TV Dante, an experimental series on Channel 4 by filmmaker Peter Greenaway and artist Tom Phillips, borrowed the photographer’s motifs and grids. “We regarded Muybridge’s figures as the timeless abstracts of being and moving,” explained Phillips. The American minimalist composer Philip Glass wrote an opera about Muybridge titled The Photographer.

There is another side to Muybridge, which adds to his interest and complexity. This crucially important figure in the history of photography, a technological innovator whose work anticipates cinema, was also a murderer. In 1874, Muybridge shot his wife’s lover, Harry Larkyns, in cold blood in front of witnesses. He was tried and pleaded insanity, the only possible grounds for defence given his guilt. This didn’t wash but the jury acquitted him anyway.

Nervous, irritable, eccentric
As Tate Britain’s handsomely mounted survey shows, Muybridge was by that time already a renowned photographer, though his most notable achievements lay ahead of him. How he acquired his photographic skills remains a mystery.

Born in 1830 in Kingston upon Thames, Edward James Muggeridge, as he was then named, emigrated in the early 1850s, becoming a bookseller first in New York, then in San Francisco. In 1860, he was injured in a stage coach accident, apparently suffering brain damage. Rebecca Solnit, author of an excellent biography, notes that this seems to have made Muybridge “impatient, nervous, irritable, untidy, easily excited, wavering, and eccentric”. Those who receive this kind of injury can also become more creative.

When Muybridge returned to San Francisco after a six-year break in England, he had become, at 36, a much more determined figure. He wasn’t the first to photograph the magnificent scenery of the Yosemite Valley in California, but his pictures were the most dramatic. Viewers loved the skies he created with the largest glass negatives (17 × 22 inches) then available, though the images were sometimes composed by combining negatives – in the exhibition the same sky appears in two different pictures. Muybridge had himself lowered down precipices with his equipment to find the best perspectives and wasn’t averse to lopping down trees if they were obstructing a good shot. In a portrait taken in the early 1870s, he sits on a box scowling at the foot of a giant sequoia, clutching his arm with his other hand: he looks distant, driven and intense.

Pictures of flying horses
In 1872, Muybridge began photographing the horses of Leland Stanford, a crooked businessman who had made a fortune as an owner of the Central Pacific Railroad. Under Stanford’s patronage, he went on to take many pictures of horses in motion at Stanford’s stables in Palo Alto, where he rigged up as many as 24 cameras to take successive shots as a horse trotted, cantered or galloped by.

The grid had yet to make its appearance and Muybridge used numbered intervals at the foot of the picture to record the animal’s movements in relation to the distance travelled. Even now the images are graphically arresting:
the figures in the frame come close to being silhouettes.

By stopping time, Muybridge had revealed what the unaided eye had never before been able to perceive; he had also established once and for all that when horses gallop there are times when all four hooves leave the ground.

With his Zoopraxiscope projector, he was able to animate painted versions of these pictures so that audiences could study the horses’ gait and other kinds of movement. Any attempt to trace the history of cinema and the moving image leads back to this watershed moment. Some fine examples, as well as a projector, can be seen at Tate Britain’s new show.

The exhibition gives a well- balanced view of Muybridge’s entire career – two huge 360-degree panoramas of San Francisco are among the highlights – but it is the last three rooms devoted to the motion studies that demand the most attention. When Muybridge’s sequences are shown as he arranged them, but framed on the wall, there is an even greater invitation to perceive them as artworks than when they are viewed in the collections Animals in Motion and The Human Figure in Motion, which are still in print.

Some of the images are so whimsical – chickens scared by the detonation of a torpedo – that it’s hard to discern any research benefit. Others, particularly those of women, seem motivated by some personal need other than strictly disinterested optical study. In one sequence, he portrays Catherine Aimer, one of his regular models, climbing naked into bed. (In an unshown set of pictures she gets up again.) In another sequence of movements, observed from three angles, Aimer turns in surprise and starts running away, hiding her face and covering her private parts with her hand. Her tense, angular poses, quite different from the mostly demure female figures, bring to mind performances by contemporary body artists such as Carolee Schneemann and Marina Abramovic. In his notebook, Muyb-ridge titles the image, casting any detachment aside, as Ashamed.

Muybridge had no objection to appearing naked except for his white prophet’s beard in his own motion studies. It’s been said that this eccentric, flawed, exceptional man never looked more at ease in a photo. His work has been assimilated in so many ways. The Tate has even released a handy iPhone app so you can ‘Muybridgize’ your pictures.

Eadweard Muybridge is at Tate Britain in London until January 16. More details at tate.org.uk/britain. In addition, his birthplace Kingston upon Thames is displaying its unique Muybridge Collection in special exhibitions at Kingston Museum and at the Stanley Picker Gallery, Kingston University. The ‘Muybridgizer’ iPhone app enables users to “freeze-frame the moving world around them”. Users can also customise their frames with grids and sepia tones.

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