- 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
Important Art by Eadweard Muybridge
Pi-Wi-Ak (Shower of Stars), Vernal Falls, 400ft, Valley of Yosemite
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.
Panorama of Lava Beds from Signal Station at Tule Lake, Camp South
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.
Panorama of San Francisco
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.
Sallie Gardner at a Gallop
This print, also known as The Horse in Motion, is amongst the earliest of the studies for which Muybridge would become known. Each of these twelve images show a horse, with rider, paused at a different moment in her paces. The horse and rider, rendered as silhouettes due to the lighting conditions and exposure time, are shown at the centre of each frame against a lined and numbered backdrop; the frames are arranged in a grid. The first frame shows the horse with one leg touching the ground, about to leap up, as seen in the next two frames, into a gallop, before moving through a longer stride in preparation for the next leap. In the twelfth frame, the horse and rider are shown at a standstill.
This set of images are best-known as a demonstration of the method Muybridge used to prove Leland Stanford's theory, on which he had a bet, that a horse leaves the ground completely while galloping. These images allowed people to understand the mechanics of the horse's motion, which had previously registered only as a blur, and so had implications for both scientists seeking to understand anatomy and artists attempting to represent it. Muybridge had, in order to capture these frames, developed new chemicals and new shutters for his camera; Stanford's financial and technical support made it possible, also, to design a track specifically in order to capture the horse, with twelve cameras that could be triggered rapidly by the horse itself through wires extending across the track, which was, like the backdrop, covered with powdered white lime to reflect as much light as possible. These images generated immediate discussion, much of which revolved around whether Muybridge's innovations belonged to the realm of art or that of science.
Phases of the Eclipse of the Sun
This image records the total solar eclipse of January 11, 1880, collapsing the eight stages of the eclipse into one sequence of exposures. These stages are clearly numbered and progress in a clockwise spiral within a larger dark oval. In the first image, at the centre, before the eclipse begins, the sun is a round, bright disk. The second, directly below this, shows the disk with a segment in the lower right obscured by the moon, which continues to obscure more of the sun in each exposure, culminating with the fifth exposure, at the upper centre of the Muybridge's image, in which the sun appears only as a thin crescent; Muybridge did not secure a shot of the full eclipse. In images six and seven, the moon recedes as the earth's rotation continues to create the impression that the eclipsing sun is itself rotating around the image. The images, arranged together, numbered and retouched before being reproduced through photography in Muybridge's studio, are neat enough as to appear more as a drawn diagram than a series of photographic exposures.
Muybridge gave this image to Leland Stanford as a parting gift when he left Palo Alto in 1881. It speaks to their shared interest in photography as a scientific tool, capturing the stages of the eclipse, but can also be read as speaking to their relationship and ambition; Muybridge's professional identification with Helios, the sun-god, contributes to a reading of the pair's partnership as akin to that of the sun and the moon, working with and against one another to create this rare solar phenomenon. The way in which the eye is encouraged to travel in a circular fashion also hints at the direction in which Muybridge's work would subsequently move, imitating the way in which the photographer and inventor's 'praxinoscope' would later set still images in motion through a rotating device.
Composite albumen print
This group of twelve frames continue Muybridge's motion studies into an investigation of the human body. The images are similar to his earlier shots of a horse running; the man in these frames appears in the centre of each, against a white background, with a measuring system at the base of his body. This man is of athletic build, bearded and nude. The twelve frames read from right to left, with the figure running in the direction in which his body is facing, disrupting the western viewer's usual habit of reading sequences from left to right; the initial confusion caused by this serves to involve the audience more closely with the frames. Each of these images has rounded corners and is set within a black border similar to those used by Muybridge elsewhere, reinforcing the relationship of Man Running to his larger body of work investigating motion.
The man in this group of images is, in fact, Muybridge himself, a fact that likely stems from his own availability as a model to whom the process would not need to be explained and with whom the repetitive nature of the work would not as easily grate. This means, however, that the sequence also operates as a self-portrait and serves as a reminder of the degree to which Muybridge was not a disinterested technician but deeply involved with the construction of an aesthetic as concerned with the appearance of scientific objectivity as its actual presence. Muybridge's motion studies are consistently arranged to form visually compelling narratives; the Grecian appearance of the male bodies, including his own, used in images such as Man Running heighten the dramatic effect of these sequences, as does the stage-like setting and framing. Muybridge, known for his showmanship and sense of the spectacular, presented these images in public lectures, where critics keenly noted that he did not trust the images to speak for themselves.
Jockey on a Galloping Horse from Animal Locomotion
Jockey on a Galloping Horse shows the evolution of Muybridge's most famous subject, the horse in motion, with which he was increasingly able to capture detail. This sequence consists of twenty exposures of a jockey atop a galloping horse, arranged tightly together with only a minimal black border; the backdrop is plain and the horse and jockey are centred in each frame, moving from left to right. In this set of images, Muybridge has succeeded in capturing a greater level of detail than in previous studies, with the muscles of the horse, the shine of its coat, the whip of its mane and the folds of the jockey's clothes all visible.
By this point, Muybridge had begun experimenting with animating his photographic sequences through an invention he labelled the 'praxinoscope.' This worked similarly to a zoetrope, with a spinning mechanism and mirrors used to create bright, continuous images. Muybridge showed many of his images, including Jockey on a Galloping Horse, with the praxinoscope at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. His presentation of real, everyday subjects - such as a horse running - as aesthetic and technological marvels played into the period's increased emphasis on spectacle. In animating this sequence, such that the horse appears to run before the audience, Muybridge positioned himself as able to stop and start time through the mechanisms of the camera. In reanimating a horse within an exhibition space, from a set of still images, the photographer used technology to gain mastery over nature and opened up possibilities for further experimentation with the moving image, laying groundwork for motion pictures and photographic performance art.
Influences and Connections
- Julia Margaret Cameron
- Silas Selleck
- Étienne-Jules Marey
- Carleton Watkins
- Landscape Photography
- Motion Pictures