He was following the Victorian fascination with categorisation, with knowing, but he was moving far beyond the microscope. One can detect a less academic tone in some of the nude work but his investigations are certainly more scientific than the phrenology or eugenics being practised by others at the same time. And as with his landscapes, Muybridge was unafraid to place himself in the same merciless glare as his subjects, posing for several scenes himself. In this he perhaps evokes fellow Briton Lucien Freud who, a century on, is similarly concerned with the body beneath the skin.
Many of the photographs from these sections of the exhibition are mesmerising. So familiar are we with movement that, even today, seeing it arrested generates a peculiar frisson. The glass slides that are displayed are lovely, precious things, shimmering like Daguerreotypes with their subjects straining to break free.
Where does Muybridge stand in the history of the moving image? The exhibition credits Muybridge with inspiring Francis Bacon, Marcel Duchamp and Edgar Degas, the commentary speaking especially of the latter’s ballet dancer images showing the artist “tracking” around his model.
Muybridge’s work presents a paradox. In devising a method to freeze motion, he used still pictures. He then ran those still images together to re-create the motion that he originally wished to stop. Ultimately his instantaneous electro-photography proved a technological dead-end, superseded by a single-camera moving picture system that is no less illusory or paradoxical but which hijacks the human brain to maintain that illusion through the persistence of vision.
And yet Muybridge laid the groundwork for a new way of seeing the world. As that world speeded up, he slowed it down and in doing so revealed a further, hidden world within. He forced artists and lay people to understand that motion, like life, is composed of endless small steps.
Posted 16 January 2011