My hope for this column is that you will not only see the exhibitions I recommend, for good or ill, but that I can perhaps give you some more information on the artists or movements represented so that you don’t walk into these exhibitions completely, well, for lack of a better term, blind. It has always been my experience that a little bit of research can go a long way in the visual appreciation of an exhibition. With any luck I won’t parrot too much the information given to you in the exhibition itself.
First off, Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1894) as he is most famously known, changed his name three times before finally settling on that particular spelling. He moved to San Francisco in the 1860s and started out as a bookseller before immersing himself in photography in 1867, which considering his early albumen prints of Yosemite from that year, is truly incredible. I don’t know if I was able in my last article to sufficiently impress upon you the level of technical skill required to produce these prints. In order to create just one of those mammoth prints of Yosemite, he would have to carry around a camera that could hold 17 x 22 inch glass plates, and of course all of his chemical processing equipment. Then, he would have to hike up to a point that was flat enough that the camera could remain steady for the several minutes it would take for the image to emerge, then develop the print immediately to prevent the image from becoming overexposed. Talk about skill!
And yes it is true, Muybridge’s most famous research into animal locomotion was funded by Leland Stanford (then president of the Central Pacific Railroad and future founder of Stanford University) with the intent to apply the scientific method to the study and gradual improvement of equine locomotion and athletics. In other words, horse racing. Stanford had started a breeding stable in Palo Alto and wanted a way to document the different speeds of his racehorses for optimum breeding, with the added perk of proving all the old East Coast breeders wrong over the “unsupported transit” debate. You see, for decades horse enthusiasts had argued over whether all four of a horses’ hooves leave the ground in a gallop, because no one had a way of objectively proving it before Muybridge.
So, Stanford brought Muybridge out to his ranch in Palo Alto in 1872, funded his initial research, and in June 1878 (after a brief hiatus where Muybridge was on trial for shooting his wife’s lover) his and Muybridge’s work was successfully vindicated in June 1878. Interestingly, Muybridge decided not to develop his hypothesis along the lines adopted by Etienne-Jules Marey (1830-1916), choosing instead to set up individual cameras to capture single frames of movement rather than tracing the entire movement on one negative print as Marey had done. In order to be able to capture such rapid movement, Muybridge had to personally develop a camera that could take a 1/1000 second exposure using an electro-mechanical trip wire.
Muybridge went on to produce over 780 studies of motion, from cats and dogs to men swinging pails and women dancing. His groundbreaking work became part of the development of motion pictures in the 1890s. Unfortunately for him, although his work was lauded by artists on either side of the Atlantic, as a scientist he was unable to compete with Marey’s chronophotography and its’ ability to capture fluid movement on a single print. Nevertheless, Muybridge’s contribution to the evolution of stop action photography cannot be understated, and, if you didn’t get the hint from my last article, you should definitely see Helios before it closes.