Time Stands Still: Muybridge And Instantaneous Photography Movement

by Matt Damsker


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By Phillip Prodger. Published by The Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University in Association with Oxford University Press. ISBN #0-19-514963-7 (cloth); 0-19-514964-5 (paper). www.oup.com . 310 pages. Price: $38 (paper).

While Talbot and Daguerre were trumpeting photography's invention in 1839, Eadweard Muybridge was barely 10 years old, a native of Kingston-on-Thames, England. In only a few decades though, Muybridge would add his name to the then short list of photography's legends via his images of horses and other animals in motion. Muybridge was not only the first photographer to successfully capture rapid action for analysis; he was also a superb composer of imagery. His legacy, which leads directly to the invention of the motion picture, contains more than the scientific studies for which he is most famous; it also includes wonderful views of sea and city inspired by his immigration to San Francisco in 1855.

The breadth of Muybridge's life and achievements is superbly documented in this catalogue, which accompanies an essential Muybridge exhibition that began at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University and continues through May 16, 2004, at the Cleveland Museum of Art. As chronicled by author Phillip Prodger, assistant print, drawing and photograph curator at the Saint Louis Art Museum, it was under the patronage of Stanford University's founders, Jane and Leland Stanford, that Muybridge devised a method for photographing episodic physical action using a series of cameras.

Arguably, the Stanfords rescued Muybridge from a strict focus on the landscape photography through which he might never have become rich or famous. In fact, nothing in Muybridge's resume suggested he was the man to photograph horses in motion when Leland Stanford asked him to do so in 1872. The rest, of course, is history, as Muybridge's immortal horse series proved that at a particular moment in the gait of a galloping horse all four hooves leave the ground simultaneously. Proctor cannot prove or disprove the popular notion that Stanford had bet thousands of dollars on the outcome of Muybridge's experiment, but he delves entertainingly into the whole affair.

More to the point, the catalogue and exhibition combine Muybridge's breakthroughs with the range of early attempts at photographing moving subjects. Charles Darwin, for example, commissioned instantaneous photographs, seeking to compare the complex expression of emotions in man and animal. Countless other examples explore the transience of motion, such as George Washington Wilson's stereo albumen prints of a ship's cannon firing a broadside, smoke billowing and dissipating. The visually complicated breaking of waves on beaches, clouds passing below sun or moon, or the blur of a moving crowd are also favorite subjects for more than a few early lensers.

And more famously, there are Thomas Eakins' great nude studies of men walking, running, and coming to a halt that break down the physicality of simple human locomotion in a way that complements Muybridge's breakthroughs. Etienne-Jules Marey's studies of birds in flight are even more precisely configured to graph the geometries of gravity-defying movement, while Ottomar Anchutz's 1887 study of horses jumping hurdles freezes the ineffable moment when a heavy animal form escapes the earth's force field.

Muybridge's plates from his seminal "Animal Locomotion" series remain the prize specimens, though, especially such subtle visual deconstructions as "Movement of the Hand, Lifting a Ball," in which the simple stages of a human grasp become a study in sublime mechanics. Even such grotesquerie as Muybridge's sequence of a grossly obese nude arising from the ground, or of nude men flipping and leap-frogging, seems revelatory in its blend of formal fascination and scientific rigor.

"Time Stands Still" is itself wonderfully rigorous, generous in its descriptions and examples of Muybridge's mechanical innovations, sequential techniques and his zoopraxiscope discs by which animal movement could be viewed as a motion picture. And a thoughtful essay by Tom Gunning explores the myths and realities of Muybridge's reputation as the father of the movies. Nor is the purely personal side of the great man ignored, thanks to a final footnoting essay about "The Larkyns Affair,' in which Muybridge survived the role of a jealousy-maddened husband who shot and killed his wife's lover after learning that he had fathered Muybridge's only child. Acquitted on the grounds of "justifiable homicide," Muybridge stands as a symbol of Wild West justice almost as much as he towers among photography's trailblazers.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published this past November.