British/American Photographer and Motion Picture Pioneer
Summary of Eadweard Muybridge
Eadweard Muybridge pioneered photographic techniques that allowed new forms of documentation of modern life. Muybridge combined refined aesthetic sensibilities, technological innovation, showmanship, and commercial wiles to position himself as the preeminent photographer of San Francisco's capitalist elite. His photographs of the Californian landscapes experiment with perspective and painterly effects, while his work for various government bureaux offers early examples of the ways in which photography could serve a propaganda role. Muybridge's most pioneering work was in the study of motion, capturing horses, humans and other animals carrying out a range of actions; his reduced exposure times allowed for sequences to be frozen into sets of images, resulting in a greater understanding of anatomy. Toward the end of his life, Muybridge began to experiment with setting these sequences in motion, which paved the way for subsequent development of the motion picture.
- Eadweard Muybridge played a significant role in the development of instantaneous photography, working with both chemicals and shutters to produce shorter exposure times. These meant that he was able to isolate particular moments, famously capturing the stages of motion, showing the audiences the positions through which animal and human bodies shifted while performing actions, which lead to advances in areas as diverse as zoology, painting, and motion pictures.
- Muybridge's work created a bridge between Europe and the United States. While Paris and London were centres for photographic innovation, new forms of capitalism were emerging as the United States expanded westward. Muybridge drew upon contemporary European technological and artistic trends in order to document the changes taking place in late-19th-century California, constructing a modern identity for the West Coast of America.
- Muybridge's attention to presentation had an impact long after his death, paving the way for post-war Conceptual artists to experiment with photography's apparent veracity. Muybridge used precise measurements, grid arrangements, and sequencing to construct an image of objectivity that continues to be persuasive. His photographs presented the motions of life in ways that transformed the everyday into the spectacular.
Biography of Eadweard Muybridge
Eadweard Muybridge, then Edward James Muggeridge, was born in Kingston-upon-Thames, a market town southwest of London, in 1830. England changed rapidly during his youth, as the Industrial Revolution widened the gap between the wealthy and those living in poverty as new technologies were developed and traditional agriculture waned. Muybridge's father worked as a coal and grain merchant and this position, coupled with the position of Kingston-upon-Thames as a trade centre, meant the family were secure despite the changes. Muybridge and his two younger brothers were exposed to the delights of the modern age without the dangers. Muybridge was reportedly adventurous as a child, with a desire to explore the world from an early age. Muybridge's father died in 1843 and his mother took over running the family business, which operated successfully into the 1850s.
Important Art by Eadweard Muybridge
This photograph shows a waterfall from above, positioned so that the water cascading down the cliff is in the lower half of the frame, slightly right of centre, while the upper portion of the frame shows trees and rocks. The image is cropped such that the sky is not visible and the position from which the photograph has been taken is unclear, creating a sense of instability in the viewer. The vertical lines of the limestone and the trees above, along with the portrait orientation of the photograph, reinforce the waterfall's downward pull. The waterfall is exposed such that it dissolves into a white blur, misting on the rocks at the lower edge of the image.
This was one of many photographs that Muybridge took around Yosemite, which had become an iconic part of Californian identity by 1860. Muybridge takes a romantic approach to the landscape, emphasising Yosemite's dizzying scale and creating a sense of contrast between the solid rock, evenly exposed, and the uncontrolled motion of the waterfall. He chose a subject that had been heavily represented in nineteenth century European art, registering as sublime and mythic, evoking a sense of awe. Muybridge's approach, like that of many other 19th-century photographers, valued aesthetics over honesty; he was known for cutting down trees which blocked the views he wanted and adding rocks and clouds in the darkroom. Muybridge was best known, however, for the heights to which he would climb, carrying heavy equipment, and for the dangerous positions in which he would place himself in order to secure shots such as this, inspiring awe among his audience.
This panorama, commissioned by the United States Army to document the Modoc War, show an encampment on the banks of Tule Lake. Muybridge has taken the three images that comprise the panorama from a signal station above the army camp; the many tents and figures shown are small against the vast landscape, which occupies the bulk of the frame. The horizon line is close to the upper limit of the picture plain and the lake stretches beside and behind the encampment, creating a sense of the vastness of inland California and Oregon.
At this point, the Modoc War dominated the news, but it was also almost over. In 1872, violence broke out after the US Army arrested the Native American Kinstspuash, who led the Modoc resistance against forced resettlement. Muybridge's photographs were intended to capture the territory on which the battles had been fought both for reporting and for future reference. The Modocs had fled by the time Muybridge arrived, meaning that the photographer fictionalised many images in order to convey an impression that battles were ongoing outside the encampment, labelling military scouts as Modocs and shooting images in which soldiers posed in ways that implied ongoing warfare. Muybridge's choice to photograph this panorama from above, with the camp in the foreground and the flat landscape receding into the distance, shorn of detail by the distance from which the image is taken, creates an impression of the landscape as barren, heightening the viewer's sense of the army as pioneers, rather than invaders. The panorama, like the group of which it forms a part, is an early example of photography's role in shaping public opinion and of Muybridge's own ability to subtly construct images that position themselves as documentation so as to conceal their propaganda purposes.
This panorama of San Francisco consists of thirteen prints, each measuring eighteen by twenty-two inches. These images afford the audience a view of the growing city in 360 degrees, with Powell Street, Pine Street and California Street guiding the eye from the foreground toward the background, where Yerba Buena Island, Angel Island and Alcatraz appear at various points on the horizon, along with houses in various directions, growing smaller. The mammoth plates used by Muybridge afford an unprecedented level of detail in each print, with architectural details, vehicles and ships in the harbour's haze all rendered legibly.
Muybridge's panorama offers a document of San Francisco's cityscape which operates as a testament to the capitalist class with whom the photographer aligned himself. Muybridge surveys the city from Nob Hill, home to San Francisco's business leaders, emphasising their centrality through the positioning of their properties in the foreground and creating a sense of power and ownership over the surveyed. The hotels, public and commercial buildings and private houses all operate as objects of civic pride and as testament to the city's growth; the ships in the harbour and the presence of vehicles in the streets of the panorama emphasise San Francisco's place as a commercial hub. It is impossible for the viewer to take in the entirety of the panorama at once; instead, the set of photographs demand physical movement, involving audiences in the drama of the image. This impresses Muybridge's technical mastery on the viewer; while mammoth plates had previously been used for panoramic cityscapes, including in San Francisco, Muybridge was ambitious in his decision to show the city in 360 degrees. The scale of this group of photographs allowed San Francisco to be captured and displayed in a way that defies the limitations of human sight.
Influences and Connections
- Julia Margaret Cameron
- Silas Selleck
- Étienne-Jules Marey
- Carleton Watkins
- Landscape Photography
- Motion Pictures
Useful Resources on Eadweard Muybridge
- Circles of Confusion: Film/Photography/Video Texts, 1968-1980Our PickBy Hollis Frampton
- Motion Studies: Time, Space and Eadweard MuybridgeOur PickBy Rebecca Solnit
- Eadweard Muybridge (Critical Lives)By Marta Braun
- Eadweard Muybridge: The Complete Locomotion PhotographsBy Hans-Christian Adam
- Animals in Motion (Dover Anatomy for Artists)By Eadweard Muybridge
- The Human Figure in Motion (Dover Anatomy for Artists)By Eadweard Muybridge
- Meet the Art - Eadweard Muybridge Photographs of Motion
- The Weird World of Eadweard MuybridgeOur PickBBC documentary on Muybridge's life and work
- Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild WestOur PickAudio of Rebecca Solnit delivering the 2011 Terra Foundation Lecture in American Art at Chicago Humanities Festival
- The PhotographerPhillip Glass's 1982 opera loosely adapts Muybridge's life into a story of rage, jealousy and murder.
- EadweardJosh Epstein and Kyle Rideout's 2015 film stars Michael Eklund and Sara Canning, dramatizing Muybridge's life.
- Rick and Morty, Season 2 Episode 1, 'A Rickle in Time'In Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon's popular animated sitcom, a reproduction of 'The Horse in Motion' can often be seen hanging on the wall of the Smith family's home, highlighting the show's low-fi stop-motion animated format, its thematic concern with time and space, and the fact that one character, Beth, is a dissatisfied horse-surgeon.
- The Muybridge MausoleumA virtual-reality experience by games production company Most Ancient exploring the primacy and wonder of some examples of early cinema, including Muybridge's sequences.