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.
Eadweard Muybridge was born Edward James Muggeridge in 1830 in Kingston upon Thames in England. From an early age, Edward dreamed of 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, determined to make a name for himself. He settled first in New York and then San Francisco where he published and sold books and fine art.
Muybridge tried his hand at several professions, repeatedly taking on new names as he went—Muggridge, Muygridge, Muybridge, Edward, Eduardo, Eadweard. He finally settled on photography, and the medium would deliver the fame for which he hungered.
Muybridge learned the young craft of photography in Kingston, after a stagecoach accident in Texas that nearly killed him. After spending several years recovering in England, Muybridge returned to San Francisco as Helios, a skilled photographer with prodigious talent and a distinctive eye.
Muybridge trained his lens on an American West undergoing radical transformation: San Francisco, trains, telegraphs and lighthouses, Indian wars, Central American coffee fincas, the first photographs of the new American territory of Alaska. The U.S. government, railroad companies, and other powerful interests hired Muybridge to produce propaganda images promoting expansion and settlement of the west, which he did.
A fiercely independent artist, though, Muybridge refused to be hemmed in by his commissions, routinely straying from their mandates to produce images he wanted to make, and that he felt he could sell to the public. Despite working on behalf of those driving Native Americans from their lands, and sharing some of their racist views, Muybridge’s representation of Native peoples is uncharacteristically respectful.
At 44 years old, at the crest of his success as a landscape photographer, Muybridge’s career—and life—nearly ended after he was put on trial for murdering his wife’s lover. Ever the survivor, Muybridge was found not guilty by an all-male jury that chose to ignore the obvious evidence to the contrary.
After a photo expedition to Central America, Muybridge turned his attention to the work that would cement his place in the annals of photography. 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 those frozen moments, the world was forever changed. Suddenly, the camera was more powerful than the human eye, able to see into invisible worlds. Muybridge’s camera now joined railroads, telegraphs, and steamships in a technological revolution transforming how people live and marking the dawn of our modern machine age.
Muybridge finished his career at the University of Pennsylvania, producing his magnum opus, Animal Locomotion, 781 plates of animals and people in motion. Buried in the supposedly scientific study are clues to the power of the camera and the photographer who wields it. In the end, Muybridge’s work at Penn, conducted under the oversight of an esteemed committee of professors, is less about nature than culture, revealing as much about power in late 19th century America as it does about how animals and people move.
The paradox of photography is that it appears 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 what is real.
“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 photography’s earliest beginnings.
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.
Near the end of his life, interest in Muybridge faded as the public turned its attention to newly invented cinema. Muybridge returned to his hometown of Kingston where he died in 1904, forgotten and alone.
Since his death, Muybridge has been rediscovered. Cutting edge artists, scientists and innovators draw inspiration from the enigmatic 19th-century photographer, his work hiding impishly in the shadows of our culture.