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The Brilliant, Eccentric Life of Eadweard Muybridge

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Splitting-The-Second-title_blueThe Brilliant, Eccentric Life of
Eadweard Muybridge

“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.

Splitting the Second is the story of Eadweard Muybridge’s remarkable life and of 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 and a passionate horseman. At the time, he was engaged in a friendly argument with some East Coast equestrians as to whether a horse’s hooves ever fully left the ground at a full trot.  Stanford said they did;  the Easterners countered they did not. It was impossible to know because at that speed everything was a blur to the human eye.

To solve the riddle, Stanford asked Muybridge to photograph one of his prized horses as it thundered past. There was only one problem: photography, invented just forty-five years earlier, was not yet capable of capturing such speed and Muybridge told Stanford so.

Leland Stanford, however, was a man used to getting his way.  He had come West from Wisconsin and beat the odds to become a successful merchant and wholesaler.  When few thought it possible, Stanford and his partners built the transcontinental railroad, making him one of the richest men in the West.  In a state dominated by the Democratic Party he was elected California’s first Republican governor, and later a U.S. senator.  So when it came to photographing a horse, Stanford refused to shrink from the challenge.  Muybridge agreed to give it a go.

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Leland Stanford

On a track blanketed in blinding white powder, with a camera operating on a 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, its legs hovering off the ground.

And so it was that an eccentric and ambitious photographer and a stubborn and determined oligarch changed the world.

“Muybridge opened a world never seen before.  This was as dramatic as Galileo looking through the telescope.”
–TOM GUNNING, UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO

Horseman

Annie G. with Jockey (.031 second) (1887)

Muybridge’s first photograph of a horse in motion is lost to history.  But six years later the photographer returned to Stanford’s track and this time he captured an unprecedented sequence of photographs of a horse as it ran by.  These photographs have survived and are perhaps Muybridge’s most famous.  An irrepressible showman, Muybridge created the first moving pictures by projecting his images in rapid succession from an invention he called the zoopraxiscope. From Muybridge’s simple movies would grow our modern culture of visual storytelling—from cinema to selfies, youtube to video games. Over the next decade, Muybridge would take tens of thousands of photographs of animals and people in motion, an unmatched catalogue of movement that has influenced not just photography and the movies but fields ranging from fine art and medicine to 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.           

“If one wanted to find an absolute beginning point, a creation story, for California’s two great transformations of the world, these experiments with horse and camera would be it. . .  Hollywood and Silicon Valley became, long after (Muybridge and Stanford) died, the two industries California is most identified with, the two that changed the world.”
Rebecca Solnit, Muybridge biographer

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 betrayed him, becoming pregnant with a son by another man.  In a fit of passion, Muybridge shot the man to death in front of witnesses, and despite confessing to the crime, was sent free when the all-male jury acquitted him.  Years later, as Muybridge was being celebrated for his horse studies, Leland Stanford released a book that nearly ruined him, reducing the photographer to a footnote—a mere instrument used to execute Stanford’s grand vision.

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Flora Stone Muybridge

A SINGULAR VISION

Yet after each slight and challenge the resilient Muybridge recovered, going on to ever-greater achievements. Following his head injury, Muybridge took up photography, bursting onto the scene with spectacular images of Yosemite, as well the most important and enduring early photographs of Alaska, a sublime series of Pacific Coast lighthouses, and widely distributed images of the Modoc Indian War, commissioned by the U.S. Army, the first time the government had employed a photographer to document battlefield conditions. After killing his wife’s lover, Muybridge responded with an extraordinary series on Central America, becoming the first to document the region’s coffee production, and legendary mammoth plate panoramas of a rapidly developing San Francisco. All of this took place over the course of a single decade and before he set to work on his revolutionary horse-in-motion series. Rather than be destroyed by Stanford’s book, Muybridge sought new patrons, eventually landing a position at the University of Pennsylvania from which he created the largest photographic repository of animals and humans in motion, assembled into books that have never gone out of print and are still being widely used to teach art and anatomy.

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 eccentric 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, laying the groundwork for all that was to come.

E._Muybridge_throwing_a_disc,_ascending_stairs,_and_walking._Wellcome_V0048740

 

 

“Eadweard Muybridge’s studies. . . changed things forever. . .So singular, so bold, so uncompromising was his project that historical time seems to split into two epochs. There is ‘before Muybridge’ and there is ‘after Muybridge’.”
–DAVID CAMPANY, University of Westminster

 

 

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