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Eadweard Muybridge and Photographic Projections of Animals in Motion

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Eadweard Muybridge was an English-born photographer who settled in the American West during the 1860s. 52 He undertook many commissioned works both in his hometown, San Francisco, and on extensive trips to such wide-ranging sites as the Yosemite Valley, Alaska, and Central America. The final product of this work took different forms, including the illustrated lecture. In this respect, the photographer was not unusual—until he was approached by California industrialist Leland Stanford in 1872. Stanford was interested in proving that at one point in a horse’s stride all four feet were off the ground, contrary to conventional renderings by painters and the consensus of experts. Photography was to provide the evidence. Muybridge made a series of individual photographs, a few of which were promising, but his work in this area was seriously interrupted by a murder trial (he killed his wife’s lover) and self-imposed exile in Central America during most of 1875.

Muybridge’s work on photographing horses in motion was resumed in 1877, again under Stanford’s sponsorship. A battery of cameras was constructed, but activating the shutter mechanisms proved to be a serious problem. Results were inconsistent. John D. Isaacs, a technical expert for Stanford’s Central Pacific Railway, was brought in and designed elaborate electromagnetic shutters for each camera. These were triggered when the horse broke a thread that was stretched across the track in its path and the magnets were connected. 53 The photographs were taken against a white background with black vertical lines to delineate the space. Each shot was exposed for approximately 1/500 of a second, and the exposures were separated by approximately 1/25 of a second. Since the exposures were activated by animals snapping the strings, the time between shots was not a standard unit. By June 1878 the system was working smoothly as horses Sallie Gardner and Abe Edgington raced and trotted down the track.

To reap the rewards of this invention, Muybridge delivered the first of many illustrated lectures on the subject at the San Francisco Art Association on 8 July. 54 According to the San Francisco Chronicle:

The attendance was not so large as might have been expected, considering the unique manner in which the subject was treated and the ability with which the illustrations were described. The stride of Abe Edgington, and of the still more celebrated trotter Occident, was depicted in a clear manner in ten photographs as each passed a space of ground measuring some 21 feet, at a 2:20 to 2:24 gait, and the strange attitudes assumed by each animal excited much comment and surprise, so different were they from those pictures representing our famous trotters at their full stride. But that which still more aroused astonishment and mirth, was the action of the racer at full gallop, some of the delineations being seemingly utterly devoid of all naturalness, so complex and ungraceful were many of the positions, where on the race track beauty, elegance, and symmetry are all so combined. After showing some of Governor Stanford’s celebrated trotting stock, Mr. Muybridge supplemented the equine series by a very pretty set of pictures delineating life and scenes in Central America, concluding with a perfect panorama of San Francisco and the surrounding country. Altogether it was a very pleasant entertainment, and Mr. Muybridge showed himself to be a clever and lucid lecturer on a very difficult subject, while his remarks on the Central American series were humorous and excelled in descriptive powers (9 July 1878, p. 3).

The exhibition focused on various aspects of Muybridge’s work. Already the serial images of horses in motion were dissolved on and off the screen with sufficient rapidity to suggest their sequential nature. To emphasize the importance of this work, Muybridge contrasted his photographs with artists’ renderings of horses in motion. 55 This approach formed the core of a presentation that he would develop over the following years.

During 1878 and 1879, Muybridge’s work in serial photography moved forward on several fronts. While continuing to lecture occasionally, he returned to his cameras (increasing their number to twenty-four) and photographed sequences of dogs, deer, oxen, and other animals as they walked or ran along the track. Series were also taken of athletes as they leaped, wrestled, performed somersaults, and ran. Again with Leland Stanford’s financial backing and encouragement, Muybridge constructed an elaborate mechanism that was attached to the magic lantern. The machine, initially called the zoogyroscope but eventually renamed the zoopraxiscope, exhibited series of images so as to reconstitute the motion his camera had analyzed. The device projected images on a constantly turning glass wheel, while a disk with series of slits turning in the opposite direction acted as a primitive shutter. Lacking an intermittent mechanism, it was, in this respect at least, less developed than Heyl’s phasmatrope. As a result, these circular slides contained not actual photographs but colored, elongated drawings that compensated for the moving shutter. Although the innovations and significance lay in the images rather than in how they were projected, few people were familiar with earlier devices such as Heyl’s; it could be argued that in a sense Muybridge actually set back the technology of rapidly projecting successive images.

The zoopraxiscope had its commercial debut at the San Francisco Art Association on 4 May 1880. Admission cost fifty cents, and the exhibition was extended, eventually running over nine days. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that “the effect was precisely that of animals running across the screen.” Another reviewer declared, “Mr. Muybridge has laid the foundation of a new method of entertaining the people, and we predict that his instantaneous photographic, magic lantern zoetrope will make the round of the civilized world.” Other lectures on the West Coast followed, and in the summer of 1881 Muybridge left for Europe, where he gave many wellattended exhibitions of his work. 56

Returning to the United States in June 1882, Muybridge gave his well-honed presentation before prestigious American audiences: the Turf Club and the Union League in New York City, the Academy of Fine Arts and the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Still the nation’s center for photography, Philadelphia extended a particularly warm reception, which led to a resumption of Muybridge’s photographic work at the University of Pennsylvania from May 1884 through December 1885. During this period he took approximately two hundred thousand images. Dry plates replaced the wet-plate collodion system, and a black background with a grid system replaced the earlier white wall. Serial images of an action were commonly taken from several different angles simultaneously. Many focused on human actions and activities that were performed by subjects wearing minimal clothing or none, and while taken for “scientific purposes,” these images had a strong erotic component. The results of this work—more than 20,000 figures of moving men, women, children, animals, and birds—were published in 1887 as Animal Locomotion, but they also enabled Muybridge to return to the lecture circuit with new images at his disposal.

One of Muybridge’s expanded lectures was given in Orange, New Jersey, on 25 February 1888. Although, as will be seen in chapter 2, it helped to stimulate Thomas Edison into thinking about a new motion-picture system, the evening program addressed much more than technology. According to the Orange Chronicle of 3 March 1888, Muybridge began by analyzing the movements of the horse and comparing them with various paintings, after which “pictures of lions, elephants, camels, rhinocerousses, buffaloes, tigers, deer, elks, kangeroos, dogs, hogs, and a vast variety of other animals were shown, the law of locomotion being uniform without exception.” He then made a strategic move that reflected Darwin’s theory of evolution: he presented photographs of scantily clad people, treating them much as he had the animals. The final blow of a fight was shown, as was “a series of pictures of female dancers pirouetting, which called down repeated applause.” 57

Responses varied among the six hundred spectators, but some were deeply disturbed by the choice of subjects. One patron protested to the Orange Journal:

Yet it may well be asked whether the realm of animated nature does not furnish illustrations of locomotion besides those found in the “sporting world.” All that were used on that occasion were taken from the horse as seen on the turf, or man in the ring. At least these were the prominent motions—running, boxing, athletic games—all of which were interesting to those who have a taste for such sports, but not so to many others.

But a more important question is as to the propriety of exhibiting semi-nude human figures to a promiscuous assembly.

Whether the object in view may not be entirely defeated by the shock to the delicate sensibilities.

To be sure, it is said by persons of cultivated taste that a prudish, squeamish shrinking from nudity argues a low grade of intelligence—that nature is always more to be admired than art. But suppose certain persons should undertake to appear in our streets and assemblies in puri naturalibus, could they appeal to artistic taste in arrest of judgment as criminals or lunatics? Yet what better than this is a life size and life like representation of the nude human form, on canvass before a mixed assemblage?

Among savages such exhibitions are entirely natural and expected, but in civilized society they are shocking to the moral sentiment, indecent and demoralizing (3 March 1888, p. 2).

There is little doubt that Muybridge intended to provoke such a reaction from his audiences. Within the framework of refined Victorian culture, he challenged the beliefs of conservative religious groups and established new parameters for discourse: his presentations were subversive not only of traditional assumptions about animal locomotion but of conventional religious and moral wisdom. As one of the screen’s many practitioners, Muybridge integrated these moving images into a larger program that had cultural significance far beyond its contribution to the development of motion-picture technology.

Nineteenth-century screen practice evidenced extraordinary vitality in the growing fraternity of producers and exhibitors, the changing methods of production, and the diverse means of representation. There were an increasing number of ways to present movement on the screen, but all were extremely limited in what they could show. As the last decade of the century began, an overall solution to the problem had yet to be found, even though many were working on the challenge: Louis Le Prince, William Friese-Greene, Ottomar Anschütz, Étienne-Jules Marey, and finally, Thomas Edison. Although this goal—what we now call “the cinema” or projected motion pictures—was readily achievable once more sensitive photographic emulsions and flexible celluloid film became available, it did not happen all at once. As had been the case with previous innovations in image making, modern motion pictures were shown first in a peephole device rather than on the screen. Both the motion-picture camera that exposed these films and the peephole device that first showed them were developed at the Edison laboratory.

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