Eadweard Muybridge

(1830—1904) developer of motion photography

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Photographer. Best known for his studies of human and animal locomotion, he originally made his reputation as a San Francisco–based landscape photographer. He also invented a device known as a zoopraxiscope to project closely spaced, stop-action images in sequence, anticipating later development of motion pictures. His other subjects included the city of San Francisco, interior and exterior views of area mansions, winemaking activities, and the scenery and Indian inhabitants of the larger western region and Latin America. Born Edward James Muggeridge in Kingston-on-Thames, near London, in adulthood he adopted a variant spelling of his name, claiming its more authentic Anglo-Saxon origins. He emigrated about 1852 to the United States to work in publishing and bookselling, at first in the East but later in San Francisco. In 1860 he returned to England, where he learned photographic techniques. He made his way back to San Francisco in 1867, with the ambition of photographing the American West. He started that spring in the Yosemite Valley. Acclaimed internationally when they were made public the following year, these romantically conceived views included many vistas not previously photographed. Contemporary painters, including Albert Bierstadt, particularly admired his original and artfully constructed landscapes capturing atmospheric effects in delicate gradations of tone. In 1872 Leland Stanford, railroad tycoon, former state governor, and horse fancier, recruited Muybridge to help settle a bet on whether a racehorse in motion ever took all four feet off the ground simultaneously. Muybridge set up a series of cameras activated by tripwires to photograph Stanford's prize horse. In his earliest investigations, limitations of the wet-plate medium prevented a definitive answer to Stanford's query, but by 1873 Muybridge's photographs seemed to indicate that horses do lose contact with the ground. In more refined experiments in 1877, Muybridge proved the point conclusively. In the meantime, in 1874 Muybridge found it expedient to leave San Francisco after murdering his wife's lover, even though a jury exonerated him. In early 1875 he embarked on a yearlong journey to Mexico and Central America, where he turned his discriminating eye on landscapes, architecture, and native inhabitants.

In 1878 he put together the zoopraxiscope, combining the rotating element of a children's toy, the zoetrope, and a “magic lantern” projector. His public demonstration of the invention in San Francisco in 1880 might be considered the first motion picture show. After an extended visit to Paris and London, in 1883 he moved to Philadelphia to begin preparations for his most extensive and significant motion studies, sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania. Now employing the faster dry-plate process, in 1884 and 1885 Muybridge investigated hundreds of human and animal subjects, including clothed and nude figures carrying out varied actions. These studies opened new understandings of processes that had previously been inaccessible to the human eye and mind. In 1887 he published the multivolume Animal Locomotion: A Electro-Photographic Investigation of Consecutive Phases of Animal Movements, 1872–1885. Its 781 plates include thousands of photographs. These sequential images of motion, sometimes recorded simultaneously from more than one vantage point, initiated a history of scientific studies using ever more sophisticated technology. But their visual impact had equivalent repercussions. At the time, many artists, such as Thomas Eakins (who had been partially responsible for bringing Muybridge to Philadelphia), consulted Muybridge's work to increase the realism of their work. Others soon drew on the evocative images for more imaginative purposes. Among them, Marcel Duchamp took his point of departure from results achieved by Muybridge and subsequent experimentalists for the revolutionary Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2. The Muybridge images also constitute an early form of conceptual art, in their application of a rigorous intellectual system for producing images that have no expressive intent but nevertheless stir the mind. Muybridge spent much of the late 1880s and 1890s traveling the world to lecture about his methods and demonstrate his results. Shown by invitation at Chicago's World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in a specially constructed Zoopraxographical Hall, which might be considered the first movie theater, his work became widely known among the public. He spent the final decade of his life in England. There he put together two books, Animals in Motion (1899) and The Human Figure in Motion (1901), based on his earlier work. He passed his final years quietly in the town where he had been born.


Subjects: Art.

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