A frontier photographer explores the limits of technology and art and shoots the first images of a world in motion.
There was once a boy named Edward Muggeridge, son of a coal merchant near London. In his early 20s he set off west across the sea, traversed a raw continent and made San Francisco his home base in 1855. Fascinated by the possibilities of the new technology of photography, which transferred the natural world to a piece of paper processed by the sun, he dubbed himself Helios, after the Greek word for sun. While transforming the American West into printed images, he transformed himself as well—to Eadweard Muybridge, publisher and murderer, explorer and inventor, photographer and scientist. This year’s retrospective at Washington, D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery of Art, “Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change,” includes little-known work like a lighthouse series, which curator Philip Brookman calls “luminous,” as well as the photographer’s classic motion studies. In these explorations of light and space and time and movement, the quick-change artist also transformed the way we see today.
The American wilderness was rapidly being explored, and city slickers were eager to participate vicariously. Muybridge hauled his heavy gear—called “The Flying Studio”—into rough country with mules. He climbed cliffs and hung from ropes to capture geological wonders like Yosemite Valley’s aptly named scarp “The Watching Eye” (above), along with waterfalls, geysers, redwoods and mountain passes. And as the continent was connected by tracks and telegraph wires, he did almost ethnographic studies of Indians, soldiers, boat builders and railroad magnates. His stereographs, two images made to seem 3-D using a special twin-lens camera and viewer, were fixtures in many a parlor, as were his panoramas of San Francisco. That city of miners and millionaires was still lawless enough that when Muybridge shot his young wife’s lover, his notoriety did attendance at his lectures no harm. Acquitted in 1875, he said, “What regret I may feel, my heart alone knows.”
Father of Invention
The process of photography was as important to Muybridge as the product, so he was delighted when railroad tycoon Leland Stanford commissioned him to deconstruct the gait of racehorses. Using 12 cameras and tripwires, Muybridge produced a frame a second, freezing movements so rapid the human eye cannot follow—and solving the conundrum of whether a galloping horse ever has all four feet off the ground (the answer is yes). When the pictures were projected on a wall from a spinning disc, a reviewer gushed, “Nothing was wanting but the clatter of hoofs…to make the spectator believe that he had before him flesh-and-blood steeds.” Muybridge refined his techniques at the University of Pennsylvania, making 20,000 images of men, women, elephants, deer, pigs and dogs for his 1887 oeuvre Animal Locomotion: An Electro-Photographical Investigation of Animal Movements. The tension between science and art is clear in the title and the work itself, and both inventors and artists credited his seminal influence. The man who would be Helios returned to his hometown of Kingston upon Thames, full of years and honors, to die in 1904, as horses were making way for motorcars and as, thanks in part to his photography, perceptions of movement and time were changed forever. The modern age had arrived.
Originally published in the October 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.