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 various 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 with 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 married a beautiful woman, half his age. The marriage came to a most melodramatic and spectacular end, and with it nearly Muybridge himself.
Ever the survivor, 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. These images were the first ever made of something moving 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.
In public lectures, the disheveled photographer with the flowing 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.
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,” Stanford wrote to his personal physician, JDB Stillman. “I think the fame that we have given him has turned his head.”
In a book he published, written by Dr. Stillman, a jealous Stanford seized full credit for the photographs, a betrayal that threatened to destroy Muybridge. Just as it appeared Muybridge’s career might be over, the University of Pennsylvania invited him to continue his motion photography in Philadelphia, under an oversight committee of esteemed professors. In 1887, Muybridge published his magnum opus, Animal Locomotion, 781 plates of animals and people photographed in all manner of movement. From the moment of publication, the Penn images were hailed as the first great photographic study of motion. Upon closer examination, however, secrets can be found in the photographs that, once revealed, make us reconsider what we are truly seeing.
“The machine cannot lie,” Leland Stanford declared of Muybridge’s camera. Or can it?
It’s a question we ask today with renewed urgency, but one with roots stretching back to the very beginnings of photography.
Muybridge died in 1904, alone in his hometown of Kingston. The world had forgotten him as its attention was lured away by a new form of motion pictures, one that he helped to inspire: cinema.
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.