Ambition, betrayal, murder, deception… and the birth of moving pictures! The story of the trailblazing nineteenth century photographer Eadweard Muybridge reads like a dime store novel.
Edward James Muggeridge was born in 1830 in Kingston upon Thames in England. From an early age, Edward dreamed of making a name for himself, escaping the drudgery of his family business lugging barges of coal and corn to and from nearby London. At twenty, Muggeridge ventured to the United States, settling ultimately in San Francisco where he published and sold books and fine art. Muggeridge developed the curious habit of repeatedly renaming himself—Muggridge, Muygridge, Muybridge, Edward, Eduardo, Eadweard.
After a stagecoach accident nearly killed him, Muybridge spent years back in Kingston recuperating. It was there that he learned the still young craft of photography—exactly how is a mystery. What is known is that in 1867 Muybridge suddenly reappeared in San Francisco, as Helios, a skilled photographer with prodigious talent and a distinctive eye.
Muybridge trained his lens on an American West amidst a radical transformation: San Francisco, trains, telegraphs and lighthouses, Indian wars, Central American coffee fincas, the first photographs of the new American territory of Alaska. Hired by powerful clients like the U.S. government and railroad companies, Muybridge was paid to produce propaganda promoting expansion and settlement of the west. Yet, he maintained a fierce independence, often departing from the narrow mandates of his commissions in an effort to produce fine art he could sell to the public. His images of Native Americans, for example, are uncharacteristically authentic and respectful, even as he worked on behalf of those driving them from their homelands.
At the age of 42, at the crest of his successful photography career, Muybridge married a woman half his age. After a couple of years, the marriage ended when Muybridge killed his wife’s lover.
Acquitted by an all-male jury, Muybridge turned his attention to the work that would cement his place as a true cultural revolutionary. In 1878, on his patron Leland Stanford’s Palo Alto Horse Farm, Muybridge managed to make his excruciatingly slow wet plate cameras operate fast enough to capture a complete sequence of a galloping horse.
In that moment, the world was changed. Suddenly, the camera was more powerful than the human eye, able to see into invisible worlds. Muybridge’s camera joined with railroads, telegraphs, and steamships, all new machines that were redefining humans’ relationship to time and space, marking the beginning of our modern technological age.
In Muybridge’s exquisite, haunting, often humorous studies of movement exists not only the DNA of our modern screen-obsessed culture, but also clues to the power of the camera and the photographer who wields it.
The paradox of photography is that it pretends to capture “what is there”, yet never quite does. Muybridge, like every photographer, simultaneously shows us something while hiding much more, shaping our perceptions of reality.
“The machine cannot lie,” Leland Stanford declared of Muybridge’s camera. But what if it can?
It’s a question we ask with urgency today, but one that has roiled below the surface from the beginning.
Photography is a medium of illusion in which the line between truth and fiction, science and art can be vexingly difficult to tease apart—the perfect milieu for the mischievous, enigmatic, duplicitous, inventive, independent, ambitious and talented Eadweard Muybridge.
Muybridge paved the way for the development of cinema and his work has influenced generation after generation of cutting-edge artists and scientists, right up to the present. Yet, ask someone if they know Muybridge, and the response, says actor Gary Oldman, who has written a screenplay on the man is, “name kind of rings a bell. And then you tell them the story and they are just amazed.”