Ambition, betrayal, murder, deception… and the birth of moving pictures! Exposing Muybridge is the first feature documentary to bring the fantastical story of the trailblazing 19th-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge to life.
Born Edward James Muggeridge in 1830 in Kingston upon Thames in England, Muybridge escaped a dreary life of lugging barges in his family’s business when, at twenty, he set sail for the United States. Determined to become successful, he would try his hand at a variety of professions, repeatedly changing his name along the way.
After a stint in New York, Muggeridge moved to San Francisco, a new city fueled by gold, and opened a bookstore. After spending several years back in England recuperating from a near-fatal stage-coach accident that left him brain damaged, in 1866 he returned to San Francisco with a new name and new profession. He was now Muybridge, a photographer who went by the pseudonym Helios, the Greek god of the sun.
For the next decade, Muybridge built a spectacular catalog of the West, roaming widely from Alaska to Central America, Utah, Yosemite, San Francisco and beyond. He served the expansionist agenda of his powerful patrons—the U.S. government, railroad companies, shipping firms, wealthy magnates—but maintained a stubborn artistic independence that framed his work.
At 41, and riding the crest of his popularity, Muybridge wed Flora Shallcross Stone, a beautiful photographic retoucher half his age. Upon discovering that Flora was having an affair, Muybridge tracked down his rival in a distant town and coldly shot him in to death. “Muybridge confessed his guilt, he was proud of what he did,” the Muybridge scholar Marta Braun says in Exposing Muybridge. Nevertheless, at his murder trial, the jurors—all men and all but one married—found Muybridge not guilty.
Spared the gallows, Muybridge turned his attention to the work that would forever change the world. With the financial and technical support of his patron, the railroad baron and politician Leland Stanford, Muybridge managed to coax his slow-moving, wet-plate cameras to move fast enough to capture running horses. Muybridge’s horses marked the first time a photographer had been able to clearly capture movement faster than the human eye can see.
“It’s like splitting the atom, it’s like discovering penicillin—it’s a monumental achievement,” marvels actor and Muybridge collector Gary Oldman in the film.
“Muybridge was offering a picture that nobody had seen before,” adds film historian Tom Gunning. “The camera’s purposes, its abilities, its possibilities become redefined: To be something that can penetrate into basically an invisible world.”
In public lectures, the disheveled photographer with the bushy white beard would delight his audiences by projecting crude animations of his motion sequences, the first moving picture shows based on live action photography, and a giant leap towards the invention of cinema.
Muybridge’s camera had joined railroads, telegraphs, and steamships in a technological revolution radically transforming how people lived and marking the dawn of our modern machine age.
The world celebrated Muybridge for his motion pictures, and the accompanying moving picture shows, but not everyone joined in. “The actual facts are from beginning to end, (Muybridge) was an instrument to carry out my ideas,” a jealous Stanford wrote to his personal physician, JDB Stillman. “I think the fame that we have given him has turned his head.”
Stanford commissioned Stillman to write a book of the images that barely mentioned the photographer. The book made Muybridge appear to be a self-promoting fraud, and nearly ruined his career. Muybridge was rescued from the Stanford betrayal when the University of Pennsylvania invited him to continue his motion photography in Philadelphia. In 1887, Muybridge published his magnum opus, Animal Locomotion, 781 plates of animals and people photographed in all manner of movement.
The work was conducted under the oversight of a committee of esteemed professors to ensure that it would hew to the rigorous demands of scientific inquiry, and for more than a century its status as a quintessential exploration of motion went unquestioned. But upon closer examination, Muybridge’s photographs turn out to say far less about the workings of the body as they do about the workings of power in late 19th-century Philadelphia.
The paradox of photography is that it purports to capture “what is there” yet never quite does. Muybridge, like every photographer, simultaneously shows us something while hiding much more, making choices that shape our perceptions of what is true.
“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 with roots stretching back to the very beginnings of photography.
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, duplicitous, inventive, independent, ambitious and talented Eadweard Muybridge.
Near the end of his life, the public lost interest in Muybridge, shifting its attention to a new, more entertaining technology: cinema. Muybridge returned home to Kingston where he died in 1904, forgotten and alone.
Since his death, Muybridge has been rediscovered, his influence more profound than ever. Cutting edge artists, scientists and innovators continue to draw inspiration from the enigmatic photographer, his work hiding impishly in the shadows of our culture.