Photographer Eadweard Muybridge subject of new biography and exhibition catalogue

The “discoverer” of animal locomotion influenced artists including Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon, who preferred to paint from photographs rather than have his subjects sitting in the same room, freely admitted to the influence of Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs on his work. “Well, of course, they were an attempt to make a recording of human motion—a dictionary in a sense,” he told David Sylvester, and it is evident from the pages in his studio torn from The Human Figure in Motion, and from Bacon’s paintings, such as Two Figures, 1953, that it was a dictionary he consulted. For many people, Bacon will have been their introduction to Muybridge. And even then, his motion studies—first published in 1887 as Animal Locomotion—might have been the only works they knew. Muybridge, however, is one of the most eccentric characters in the history of photography. Born Edward James Muggeridge in Kingston-upon-Thames in 1830 (he chose different variants of his name throughout his life), he was an artist, inventor, adventurer, salesman, brand manager, would-be scientist, Victorian showman and one of the pioneers of motion pictures. The current show at Tate Britain (until 16 January), which originated at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, under its chief curator Philip Brookman, situates Muybridge not only within the history of 19th-century photography, but within the wider history of 20th- and 21st-century art, since his later work fits easily into recent preoccupations with seriality, typology and the archive.

The accompanying catalogue is a thoroughgoing examination of Muybridge, with an introduction by Andy Grundberg that relates his work to the concerns of contemporary art, followed by a main biographical essay by Brookman, which explores the trajectory of his career. Although Muybridge’s photographic output was multi-faceted—he was famous in his lifetime for his landscapes and panoramic city views, he undertook ethnographic, marine and engineering photography, prototypical documentary essays and war photography—it was his motion studies, the photographs that revealed elements of human and animal locomotion previously invisible to the human eye, which were his greatest legacy, since they changed forever our understanding of space and time and the relationship between them. It was the railroad baron Leland Stanford who, in 1872, asked him to find out, definitively, whether a horse lifted all four hooves off the ground at a gallop (it did). He later continued to refine his methods with the support of the University of Philadelphia, extending his subjects from horses, to men, to women to a whole range of animals from baboons to elephants.

The chronological series of nearly 200 plates that form the central axis of the book is broken at intervals by essays on aspects of Muybridge’s work. Rebecca Solnit, whose 2003 biography increased popular interest in Muybridge, points out some of the consistent themes that run through his work—water, clouds, the harsh texture of stone, tangled trees and foliage—together with a certain amount of derring-do when it came to obtaining his mountain views and a characteristic strangeness in his photographs. Muybridge chopped down trees, moved boulders and suspended himself from overhanging rocks to secure dramatic, unexpected viewpoints, and, in doing so, often removed the foreground from his pictures as if to pass on to the viewer a discomfiting sense of vertigo.

Corey Keller, from San Francisco MoMA (to where the show travels from 26 February-7 June 2011) discusses Muybridge the showman, the ambitious salesman who understood what his audience enjoyed and worked hard to deliver it. In the last two decades of his life, Muybridge lectured on his locomotion studies in America and Europe and though he held his methods to be scrupulously “scientific”, his presentation of them—via his “zoopraxiscope”, an apparatus which spun the frames to appear as moving images—was worthy of a circus ringmaster.

In the final essay by Marta Braun, which is taken, in part, from her new biography of Muybridge, we find the rewards of recent scholarship. Muybridge, with typical contrariness, destroyed (or buried) the negatives of his locomotion studies, so for almost a century there was no record of the original photographs. Only the inter-negatives, taken from already manipulated negatives, from which the plates for Animal Locomotion were made, survived. Then, in 1999, cyanotypes (contact prints made with iron, rather than silver salts, that look like blueprints) from Muybridge’s original negatives were found in storage in the Smithsonian Institution. When compared with the published plates, they revealed extensive manipulation and inconsistencies in the sequencing of the individual frames, which even scholars had failed to notice. As Braun explains: “Because they are presented as sequences, we see them that way.”

Muybridge emerges from all this as an ambitious, scratchy, adventurous wizard of a man, not good at close social contact—he rarely took portraits—and, although he married and had a son, he suspected his wife of adultery and shot her lover in cold blood—for which he was acquitted. What nobody has discovered, though, is how Muybridge became a photographer in the first place. After an accident in the US in 1861 in which he was injured, he returned to England a bookseller; six years later, he was back in San Francisco working under a pseudonym as “Helios” the photographer. Brookman has Muybridge in 1862 exhibiting two inventions (a printing apparatus and a washing machine) at the Great London Exposition, and in 1865 investing in two companies that failed. Marta Braun’s new book—which tells his story with clarity and economy and is particularly good on the battle between science and art in his photographs—adds little more to the mysterious “lost years”. Perhaps it’s fitting that Muybridge should have kept something for himself.

Philip Brookman, with contributions by Marta Braun, Andy Grundberg, Corey Keller and Rebecca Solnit, UK: Eadweard Muybridge (Tate Publishing), 360 pp, £29.99 (pb) ISBN 9781854378378; US: Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change (Steidl & Partners), 360 pp, $80 (hb) ISBN 9783865219268

Marta Braun, Eadweard Muybridge (Reaktion Books), 208 pp, £10.95 (pb) ISBN 9781861897602

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The horse was only the beginning…'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 218 November 2010