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Photo Pioneer Muybridge Froze Time During an Era of Change


‘Headspring, a flying pigeon interfering. Plate 365, 1887.’ by Eadweard Muybridge, Collotype on paper. (All images courtesy the Corcoran Gallery of Art.)

Many of the technical and artistic conquests made in the history of photography can be traced back to the breakthroughs of one man. The 19th century British born photographer Eadweard Muybridge — an invention in and of himself, he was born Edward Muggeridge — spent his lifetime capturing the American spirit, first in the landscapes of the Western frontier, and later in his visualizations of movement stopped in time that seemed to conquer speed with technology, freeze and reveal the un-seeable for every eye.

‘Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change,’ a new exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, tracks Muybridge’s development as he tracked the development of the country with his camera. With one foot lingering in Manifest Destiny and the other fully planted in the industrial revolution, America in the mid-19th century was at a crossroads; Muybridge was there as both documentarian and catalyst.

Watch a conversation with Philip Brookman, Curator of ‘Helios’ at the Corcoran Gallery of Art:


At the start of his career, he signed his photographs ‘Helios’ after the Greek god who carted the sun across the sky. Muybridge’s symbol for his studio was a camera with wings. The image was apt: Muybridge often lugged his own equipment, huge glass plates, across landscapes and up to the edge of precipices, visualizing places as astonishing in image as they were reckless in reality.

“Muybridge was photographing the journey to modernization,” explains Rebecca Solnit, author of the expansive cultural biography of Muybridge, ‘River of Shadows,’ “for this is what his series of pictures — of the mysteries of movement, of remote landscape, of an Indian war, of an instant city, of the transcontinental railroad line, and other developments of the West — add up to.”

[Art Beat talked more about Muybridge and his long-term impact on visual culture with Solnit, whose book won The National Book Critics Circle Award in 2003. Read the interview here.

Unlike contemporaries such as Carleton Watkins, who sought to show landscapes as tranquil nature ripe for expansion, Muybridge’s pictures unearth texture and drama, and change — both visual and ideological.

He documented the country’s physical expansions, like the growth of San Francisco in 17 ft. long panoramic prints, and in photos of the Modoc Native American tribe battling for their land against the miners, settlers and encroaching railroads.

He also captured the essence of America’s kinetic (and often frenetic) spirit. He opted for motion rather than stasis in his series of photographs from Yosemite in the late 1860s: Long exposures transform waterfalls into a substance more like milk or liquid cloud. Rather than accept the washed out skies due to the extended exposures, Muybridge reinserted drama in his shadowy landscapes by laying in composites of clouds from other plates.

In 1872, railroad robber baron Leland Stanford — onetime governor of California and founder of his eponymous university — hired Muybridge to photograph his horse in motion so that he could breed a faster animal. Facing a feat that had not yet been accomplished, Stanford granted Muybridge full use of his staff of engineers to come up with a solution: Harnessing electricity, they wired a row of cameras to snap a photo one after another, down the line.

The resulting photograph of Occident the race horse was an instant sensation. One of its major accomplishments was proving that a horse, running full speed, actually lifts all four feet off the ground; It changed the way artists portrayed animals in motion from then on. He continued on this track, producing his most famous work, a series of locomotion photographs that showed animals and humans in motion, performing actions that ranged from athletic to mundane. Books of his photographs are still used as tools — we found old reference copies in the NewsHour’s graphics department.

“Muybridge was as much an artist for scientists as he was a scientist for artists,” writes Solnit in the ‘Helios’ exhibition catalog.

Corcoran curator Philip Brookman agreed: “I think every time Muybridge began to think of his work as science, he always injected a kind of poetry into it.”

Zoopraxiscope.jpgThough it’s hard to imagine now, the isolation of movement was so new, so foreign and strange in Muybridge’s time that most audiences refused to believe the veracity of his photographs. He invented and traveled with the zoopraxiscope, a projector with slides along a perimeter, largely to convince audiences by projecting his slides in sequence. But like his vertigo-inducing landscapes, his zoopraxiscope projected a distorted image of movement due to one serious flaw: Instead of rapid succession of images from the same point of view, Muybridge’s photographs were usually taken from different vantage points.

Above: Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxiscope, 1879 -1885. Mixed media projector. By permission of Kingston Museum and Heritage Service.

Taken together, the images make little movies, but “he wasn’t interested in cinema,” said Brookman, “He was interested in looking voyeuristically at little bits of actions,” i.e. the parts themselves, rather than the sum.

Nonetheless, his discovery is often credited with planting the seed of moving pictures; Muybridge once met with Thomas Edison to propose joining his images with Edison’s telephone for a future with talking pictures. (Edison later went on to invent the kinetoscope and produce the first American movies.)

Muybridge’s personal story may be as apocryphal as it is incredible, as sensationalist as it is sensational. Many assign Muybridge’s wanton pursuit of beauty in the midst of danger to an 1860 stagecoach accident where he suffered a serious head injury. Fifteen years later, the consequences of that injury surfaced again in the form of a legal defense. After discovering an unfamiliar photograph with an inscription by his wife, Eadwaerd Muybridge travelled over six hours (by ferry, horse, carriage and foot) to shoot her lover in the heart. A media sensation by then, Muybridge pleaded insanity, and was acquitted without being found insane. Testimony from the case forms much of what we know today about Muybridge, painting him as a jealous, eccentric character.

That idiosyncrasy is central to Muybridge’s story, and, argues Solnit, his endurance as a legend and an influence. “If he had been pure prodigy, we could label him such and file him away in one of history’s commodious drawers,” Solnit writes in River of Shadows, “If he were nothing but a charlatan or a criminal, the same would be true. That he is all of these things means he is not so easily got rid of.”

“Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change” features more than 300 objects created between 1858 and 1893, including vintage photographs, albums, stereographs, lantern slides, glass negatives and positives, camera equipment, patent models, Zoopraxiscope discs, proof prints, notes, books, and other ephemera. The collection will be at the Corcoran until July 18, before it travels to Tate Britain in London from September 8, 2010 through January 16, 2011, and to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art from February 26 through June 7, 2011.

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