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Eadweard Muybridge

Text from The History of Photography

Former governor of California Leland Stanford owned a string of race horses and was especially proud of his trotter "Occident." According to the San Francisco Alta of April 7, 1873,

he wanted his friends abroad to participate with him in the contemplation of the trotter "in action," but did not exactly see how he was to accomplish it until a friend suggested that Mr. E. J. Muybridge be employed to photograph the animal while trotting. No sooner said than done. Mr. Muybridge was sent for and commissioned to execute the task, though the artist said he believed it impossible....
Muybridge, whose large photographs of Yosemite Valley were world famous, was born in Kingston-on-Thames, England, in 1830. He had taken the strange name Eadweard Muybridge in the belief that it was the Anglo-Saxon original of his real name, Edward James Muggeridge. In California he photographed the Pacific Coast for the government, accompanied the official expedition to Alaska when that territory was acquired from Russia in 1867, and became a specialist in industrial photography. In 1869 he invented one of the first shutters for a camera. His experience was to serve him in good stead. The Alta reporter continued:

All the sheets in the neighborhood of the stable were procured to make a white ground to reflect the object, and "Occident" was after a while trained to go over the white cloth without flinching; then came the question how could an impression be transfixed of a body moving at the rate of thirty-eight feet to the second. The first experiment of opening and closing the camera on the first day left no result; the second day, with increased velocity in opening and closing, a shadow was caught. On the third day, Mr. Muybridge, having studied the matter thoroughly, contrived to have two boards slip past each other by touching a spring, and in so doing to leave an eighth of an inch opening for the five-hundredth part of a second, as the horse passed, and by an arrangement of double lenses, crossed, secured a negative that shows "Occident" in full motion - a perfect likeness of the celebrated horse.
The experiments were interrupted when Muybridge was tried in 1874 for murdering his wife's lover; although he was acquitted, he left the country and the work for Stanford was dropped.

In 1877 Muybridge was able to resume work, with success enough to encourage him to send a photograph to the editor of the Alta with a letter explaining that it "was made while 'Occident' was trotting past me at the rate of 2.27, accurately timed . . . the exposure . . . being less than 1 / 1000 part of a second .... The picture has been retouched, as is customary at this time with all first-class photographic work, for the purpose of giving a better effect to the details. In every other respect the photograph is exactly as it was made in the camera." The retouching was unfortunate, for the authenticity of the photograph was immediately questioned. So be began all over again, using a battery of cameras rather than a single one.

Beside the race track Muybridge ranged twelve cameras, each fitted with a shutter working at a speed he claimed to be "less than the two-thousandth part of a second." Strings attached to electric switches were stretched across the track; the horse, rushing past, breasted the strings and broke them, one after the other; the shutters were released by an electromagnetic control, and a series of negatives made. Though the photographs were hardly more than silhouettes, they clearly showed that the feet of the horse were all off the ground at one phase of the gallop-but, to the surprise of the world, only when the feet were bunched together under the belly. None of the horses photographed showed the "hobbyhorse attitude" - front legs stretched forward and hind legs backward -so traditional in painting. The photographs looked absurd.

They were widely published in America and Europe. The Scientific American printed eighteen drawings from Muybridge's photographs on the first page of its October 19, 1878 issue. Six of them showed "Abe Edgerton" walking: the remaining twelve were of the same horse trotting. Readers were invited to paste the pictures on strips and to view them in the popular toy known as the zoetrope, a precursor of motion pictures. It was an open drum with slits in its side, mounted horizontally on a spindle so it could be twirled. Drawings showing successive phases of action placed inside the drum and viewed through the slits were seen one after the other, so quickly that the images merged in the mind to produce the illusion of motion. The editor wrote: "By such means it would be possible to see not only the successive motions of a trotting or running horse, but also the actual motions of the body and legs in passing through the different phases of the stride."

In 1880, using a similar technique with a device he named the zoogyroscope, or zoopraxiscope, Muybridge projected his pictures on a screen at the California School of Fine Arts, San Francisco." Motion pictures were born...

The American realist painter Thomas Eakins was greatly impressed by Muybridge's horse photographs. He owned a set of the published prints, from which he made lantern slides for teaching purposes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts. In 1879 he painted A May Morning in the Park, showing the four-in-hand of his friend and patron Fairman Rogers; the attitudes of the sixteen legs of the four horses pulling the coach he calculated from the Muybridge photographs. Rogers, who was equally impressed by them, invited Muybridge to give some lecture-demonstrations in Philadelphia. They were so enthusiastically received that the provost of the University of Pennsylvania offered Muybridge - for an advance of $5000 - a contract to continue his work under the University's auspices in Philadelphia. The offer was accepted, a commission was formed, and Eakins was named as the supervisor of the project. With the help of Muybridge, Eakins devised a camera similar to Marey's, with a single lens and a movable plate: thus he could secure sequential images of athletes in action.

Between the spring of 1884 and 1885 Muybridge took some 30,000 negatives with perfected equipment. The shutters were now controlled by clockwork, so that exposures could be made at any desired interval; three cameras, each with thirteen lenses (one for viewing, twelve for taking) were used to photograph from side, front, and rear; and, most importantly, the newly perfected gelatin dry plate made it possible for him to secure well-detailed images at short exposure times.

The results of Muybridge's labors were published in 1887 in the form of 781 collotype plates; they were sold separately, or bound in eleven volumes with the title Animal Locomotion. In addition to horses, animals of all kinds were borrowed from the Philadelphia zoo for photographing. But the most significant work was the human figure. Male and female models, nude and clothed, were photographed in all manner of activity - walking, running, laying bricks, climbing stairs, fencing, jumping. Muybridge even photographed one girl throwing a bucket of water over another girl's shoulders, and a mother spanking a child. His specific intention was to create an atlas for the use of artists, a visual dictionary of human and animal forms in action.


 


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