“I am going to make a name for myself. If I fail, you will never hear of me again.”
–Eadweard Muybridge, 1850
When Eadweard Muybridge spoke those words, he was headed to America from his home in England, determined like so many to take full advantage of the new world. By the time of his death in 1904, Muybridge had made far more than a name for himself—he had changed the world.
Exposing Muybridge is the story of Eadweard Muybridge’s remarkable life and his enduring legacy.
A HORSE CAUGHT IN MOTION
In 1872 Leland Stanford hired Eadweard Muybridge to take a picture of a horse.
Muybridge was a prolific San Francisco photographer known equally for his glorious landscapes and his willingness to do whatever it took—even to risk his life—in order to get the perfect shot.
Stanford was a domineering California oligarch whose only passion, aside from his family, was horses. Stanford turned to Muybridge to settle a debate within the equestrian community: At a full gait, did a horse’s four hooves ever leave the ground simultaneously. Stanford believed they did; others disagreed. It was not possible to know because when moving fast a horse’s legs become a blur to the human eye.
Stanford’s plan was to have Muybridge photograph one of his champion race horses as it thundered past. There was only one problem: photography, still in its infancy, was not yet capable of capturing such speed and Muybridge told Stanford so.
Leland Stanford, however, was a man used to getting his way. Stanford and his partners became rich building the “impossible” transcontinental railroad. In a state dominated by the Democratic Party he was elected California’s first Republican governor, and later a U.S. senator. Stanford insisted and Muybridge agreed to give it a go.
“The machine cannot lie.” –LELAND STANFORD
On a track blanketed in blinding white powder, using a camera equipped with an innovative hair-trigger shutter, Muybridge made his first attempt to freeze a horse in full stride. Nothing appeared. He tried again and failed. Muybridge tried a third time and to his surprise when he stared down at his wet plate negative there it was: a shadowy silhouette of a horse. Muybridge didn’t like the photograph, but it satisfied Stanford’s desires: all four legs could be seen hovering off the ground. Lithographs based on the image were made, but the photograph itself was never published and has since been lost to history.
The Horse In Motion. “Sallie Gardner,” owned by Leland Stanford. Eadweard Muybridge, 1878
Six years later the photographer reunited with the railroad baron to capture unprecedented photographic sequences of horses as they ran past a bank of cameras. These photographs have survived and are Muybridge’s most famous.
Muybridge’s horse-in-motion sequences were a worldwide phenomenon and sent a shockwave through the art world. When Stanford showed Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier the images, the master French painter “fairly tore his grey locks out.” “How!” he exclaimed, “after thirty years of absorbing and concentrated study, I find I have been wrong. Never shall I again touch a brush!”
Stanford replied, “The machine cannot lie.”
To persuade skeptical audiences, Muybridge invented a machine he called a zoopraxiscope and using animated replicas of his photographs projected the first moving picture shows based on live action photography. From Muybridge’s simple movies would grow our modern culture of visual storytelling. Muybridge would go on to take tens of thousands of photographs of animals and people in motion, an unmatched catalogue of movement that has influenced not just photography and cinema but fields as diverse as art, medicine, industrial design, biomechanics, athletics and nuclear physics.
Muybridge was the right person in the right place at the right time—a man out to make a name for himself in a city full of opportunity in the midst of a technological revolution. It was the moment when the past gave way to the future, the lumbering pace of pre-industrial life to the raw speed of the industrial age with its railroads, telegraphs, phonographs and steamships. With his cameras, and his talents, Muybridge not only documented this tectonic shift, he thrust it forward.
A RESILIENT SURVIVOR
Muybridge’s life was one marked by pain, betrayal and heartache. When he was thirteen, his father died, followed four years later by his older brother. His younger brother died of tuberculosis soon after joining Muybridge in San Francisco. Muybridge himself was nearly killed when he sustained a serious head injury after being thrown from a stagecoach and was never the same again.
After he married Flora Stone, a woman half his age, she began an affair with another man named Harry Larkyns, leaving doubts as to whether Muybridge or Larkyns was the father of the son she bore. Outraged upon discovering the infidelity, Muybridge traveled eight hours to where Larkyns was staying and shot him to death in front of witnesses. Muybridge never disputed that he killed the man, lamenting only that Larkyns had “died too quickly.” Nonetheless, he was acquitted by a jury of twelve men, eleven of whom were married. Years later, as Muybridge was being celebrated for his equine motion studies, Leland Stanford published a book that nearly ruined him, reducing the photographer to a footnote—a mere instrument used to execute Stanford’s grand vision.
Remarkably, the resilient Muybridge survived one setback after another.
A SINGULAR VISION
In 1867, Muybridge burst onto the scene with spectacular images of Yosemite and the earliest photographs of Alaska to be widely seen. Over the next decade, Muybridge photographed large swaths of the West, shooting lighthouses, the Modoc Indian War, Central America, advancing railroads and telegraphs and the native peoples pushed out of their way. He last major landscape work is a legendary mammoth plate panorama of San Francisco, a work that serves as a kind of bridge to his motion studies.
In 1883, still recovering from Stanford’s betrayal, Muybridge found a new sponsor to back his work: the University of Pennsylvania. Working with improved photographic technology at Penn, Muybridge created an unparalleled record of animals and humans in motion. In 1899, Muybridge published Animals in Motion, a collection of his Stanford and Penn images of animals, followed two years later by The Human Figure in Motion, featuring selected human studies from his Penn collection. The books are still in print and are widely used by artists, students and others.
Projected from his zoopraxiscope Muybridge’s kissing women, wrestling men, flying birds, galloping horses, and walking elephants do more than spring to life on the screen, they tell stories. The enigmatic photographer could not have anticipated how profound a legacy he would leave, but with his marriage of moving image and narrative Muybridge revolutionized modern culture, helping lay the groundwork for all that was to come.
Muybridge was a complicated man. He mischievously inhabited the space between science and art, truth and fiction, sterile data and potent culture, and he died harboring secrets that we are only now beginning to fully understand.
“Muybridge is showing us something and hiding something at the same time. So much of his work embodies the paradox of photography.” —BYRON WOLFE, Photographer and Author
Eadweard Muybridge is no antique, no portal to the past. Rather, he’s an ‘origin story’ for our own fast-paced, screen-obsessed, technological age.
To expose Muybridge is to expose ourselves.
E. Muybridge throwing a disc, ascending stairs, and walking. Eadweard Muybridge, 1887