Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Eadweard Muybridge  Tate Britain Friday 7 January 2011

This superb exhibition set out the full story of Victorian photographic pioneer Muybridge. Known mostly for success in proving – via his ground-breaking multiple camera arrays – that a horse does have all four hooves off the ground at one stage of the gallop, his wider achievements are even more noteworthy.

Before this historical moment in 1873 Muybridge was already a hugely successful maker and purveyor of landscape and urban imagery in San Francisco and Central America, having emigrated to make his fortune. He also advanced the recording, analysis and projection of motion, and was an endless examiner of the human being. And he was a killer, having shot dead his wife’s lover (he was tried but acquitted, the episode barely interrupting his career).

This rich life ensures that the dual meaning in many of the words associated with photography become clear: exposed, develop, arrest, shoot.

The first fruits of Muybridge’s new career abroad came in 1867 through his endless exploration of the massive openness found in Yosemite Valley, in the Pacific Coast and in Utah. His images showed a distinctive signature, through their representation of water, man and the land.

Lakes are rendered glassily transparent or reflective, with the waterline sometimes placed high in the frame, as in a portrait of Kekootoyem (‘Mirror’) Lake which momentarily appears to be an image of the mountain range behind hung upside down. Waterfalls, though, are blurred into “light-filled solid forms”, as the audio commentary poetically puts it. This was in fact an inescapable feature of reality due to the limitations of the technology available, but one wonders whether this contributed to Muybridge’s desire to investigate ways to stop movement.

The fixed focal length of camera lenses and the lack of enlarging or reducing equipment forced photographers of the period to consider their viewpoint with great care. Despite the practicalities of the glass plate wet collodion system, particularly the ‘mammoth’ 17 x 22 inch format he preferred, militating against this, Muybridge’s works show superb compositional sense, often emphasising man’s insignificance in such surroundings. Muybridge himself posed precariously on a rock overhanging a precipice in one of his images to further stress man’s vulnerability.

There is a clear parallel here with the contemporary American Sublime movement in painting, which aimed to reveal the God-made wonders of the New World to its new settlers, and in fact Muybridge did photograph Albert Bierstadt, one of its principal exponents.

Muybridge also brings an exquisite tonality to his photographs, giving a real presence and tactility. Perversely, this sometimes inverts the grandeur of the subject; what are in reality immense cliffs seem also a close-up of the grey clay of his Middlesex home, chiseled with spademarks. Cloudscapes took longer to register on the plates and thus had to be exposed separately. Muybridge often re-used particularly impressive examples in other images.

Stereophotography also proved attractive to Muybridge. Two lenses a small distance apart recorded two slightly different views of the same subject; when developed and observed through a viewer, a genuine three-dimensional image is produced. Muybridge brought a genuine artistic sensibility to what was a populist market, with dramatic vantage points and lone figures offsetting the vastness of the topography.

Muybridge appears to have been equally fascinated by the tension suggested by the emerging man-made impositions on this landscape. He photographed lighthouses, in 1871, railroads and bridges, often using unconventional angles to emphasise their nature – the American Sublime artificially created, as it were. Revealingly, these pictures too contain tiny figures, dwarfed by whatever structure is depicted, with that structure in turn dominating the natural world.

Just as he practised sleight-of-hand in his cloudscapes, so pseudo-documentary photographs were a Muybridge speciality, using members of one Native American tribe to represent another for press coverage of the conflicts with the settlers. The same fictionalising afflicted much early reportage photography but is notable given Muybridge’s future effort to show the truth of motion.

Extensive tours of Panama, Guatemala and around in 1875 provided Muybridge with further contrasts. Here, ruined settlements appear as Roman remains, half-buried like Pompeii, whilst a few locals are artfully placed on a foreground ridge overlooking a bustling town. The pull of his native land must have remained, however, an arched bridge with a solitary figure beneath calling immediately to mind the work of Constable.

Based as he was in San Francisco, one of the fastest-growing cities in America following the discovery of gold in the West, Muybridge did not fail to seize the opportunity to survey its expansion. He photographed the new civic buildings and the mansions of industrialists such as railroad magnate Leland Stanford as they rose. He created two outstanding panoramas of the city, standing on the roof of Stanford’s home. Muybridge’s proven ability to organise the logistics of late 19th century photography paid off once more, since each of these involved making one exposure after another with the most minimal time delay between each to avoid changes in the weather affecting the result. The second, larger-format, version required eleven plates which were made consecutively over five hours.

Muybridge had already photographed Stanford’s horses at his ranch, and his return to this topic in 1877 would drive his life and career thereafter.

Breeding and racing horses were lifelong obsessions for Stanford. He hoped that photographic analysis of their movements and gait would help improve their performance, and even allow a horse’s likely future speed to be predicted while it was still a colt. Muybridge shared Stanford’s appreciation of the power resident in the natural and the mechanical, whether horse and rail or landscape and city. He also wished to assist artists in depicting animals more convincingly.

The key problem that had faced Muybridge originally – decades before the invention of true moving picture cinematography in 1896 – had been how to freeze motion.

It must have been obvious that the stills camera was theoretically able to achieve this, but the method was unclear. One obstacle had been removed with the formulation of more sensitive photographic materials that could record an image with much less exposure to light. The long exposure times previously required were responsible for the lack of people and traffic in Muybridge’s urban imagery – moving objects simply did not register. However, the shutter technology needed to actually generate the extremely short exposures needed still did not exist since images took so long to register, all that was needed to start and stop the process was removal and replacement of the lens cap.

Muybridge’s genius was to conceive a solution to all three issues, creating what he called ‘instantaneous electro-photography’. As the exhibition commentary succinctly has it, this aimed to “break[…] down a sequence of motion into its component fractions of time”.

On a carefully prepared section of Stanford’s racetrack, as many as 24 cameras were placed in line, 21 inches apart. The cameras were standard, but critically a separate shutter box was now fitted in front of the lens. This box contained a vertical wooden slat with a slit cut in it, held in tension by rubber bands and prevented from moving by a battery-powered electromagnetic solenoid.

The camera bank pointed toward a wooden backdrop. This stood at an angle to the sky and was painted white to reflect as much light as possible onto the subject. A slightly raised track, also white, ran in front of it, and the ground was dusted with white powder. Trip wires ran from the solenoids of each camera across the track.

As the horse was galloped along the track its hooves broke the tripwires, triggering the solenoids and releasing the shutter on each camera in turn. The result was 24 pictures, each depicting a separate moment in the gallop in chronological order.

It was a breakthrough. Muybridge was able to prove not only that a horse’s hooves do all leave the ground, but that those hooves are travelling at 100 feet per second at full gallop. Keen to stress the science behind this new concept (in fascinating opposition to his artistic landscape and ‘realistic’ documentary work), Muybridge published cards containing an image from a given sequence overlaid with graphics mapping the path of each hoof, technical data and descriptive text.

Now, in the final two decades of the century, Muybridge worked for Stanford at Palo Alto and refined the technique (the location seems appropriate; in the 1970s, Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center was responsible for several firsts in the nascent world of personal computing). He included banks of cameras at oblique angles to the subject to capture three-quarter views from front or rear for even more detailed analysis, and eliminated the awkward tripwires in favour of a clock-driven release mechanism.

Widening his range of subjects to include fauna of all types, Muybridge published his results as The Attitudes of Animals in Motion in 1881.

Image sequences from these studies were painted onto the glass discs of the Zoopraxiscope (‘animal action viewer’) which Muybridge had invented the year before. It was a development of previous devices that created apparent motion from a rapidly-moving series of still pictures, and combined a projector with a spinning picture disc and a shutter disc with variable-width slots to generate different types of image. In making the discs, Muybridge edited together views of subjects from various angles, using the more complex imagery he now had. The images were often projected at near-life size, contributing to the popularity of the public lectures that he gave with the machine. So accurate were the results that Stanford is said to have recognized the gait of a specific horse purely from viewing zoopraxiscope footage.

In its final form, Muybridge’s photography used a sophisticated, adjustable, semi-automatic, electro-mechanical system with multiple banks of cameras. The operator set the desired interval for the pictures, based on the expected speed of the subject. A button was pressed as an initial mark was reached and the timer did the rest, releasing each camera’s shutter at the appropriate moment. A grid of threads suspended against the background provided reference lines for calculations.

It was with this set-up that Muybridge embarked on his final project, Animal Locomotion, in 1884. An encyclopaedic survey of movement photographed from all angles and broken down into its component phases it featured everything from baboons to birds, but also human beings. Wrestlers, boxers, workmen and female models posed for Muybridge’s motion-stopping cameras, usually nude or minimally clothed and performing all manner of actions including walking, running and tumbling. Amusingly some poured or threw water, an indication of Muybridge’s persisting interest in a subject whose movement he could now finally freeze.

Muybridge’s use of six cameras arrayed in a curve, which thus captured a movement from different viewpoints simultaneously, is a breathtaking discovery since this is exactly the technique used over a hundred years later to create the famous ‘bullet time’ effect in the film The Matrix, where the motion of a subject is stopped whilst a (motion picture) camera appears to move around it. The exhibition reproduces just a handful of these astonishing sequences, showing for example a man vaulting over another caught in mid air.

Muybridge reworked older images and used a new dry plate photographic process. The faster turnaround and greater convenience this enabled led to Muybridge amassing a staggering 20,000 negatives.

  ...contd

muy - fall

Pi-Wi-Ack. Valley of the Yosemite. (Shower of Stars) "Vernal Fall." 400 Feet Fall. No. 29 1872 (Tate Gallery/San Francisco Museum of Modern Art)

muy - horse

Trotting; sulky; bay mare Lizzie M. Plate 609, 1887 (Tate Gallery/Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC)

muy - horse obl

Oblique-angle footage of a horse being jumped (photoghistory.blogspot.com)

muy - zoopraxiscope

Muybridge's Zoöpraxiscope, 1879 (modified 1892/3) (victorian-cinema.net/ Kingston Museum and Heritage Centre)

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