Ten ‘firsts’ by Eadweard Muybridge

Silents by numbers

This is a guest post for Silent London by Robert Seidman, author of Moments Captured, a novel based loosely on the work and life of the pioneering 19th century photographer Eadweard MuybridgeThe Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.

Nine Firsts – and One Disputed First – by Eadweard Muybridge, Photographer Extraordinaire

The Horse in Motion
The Horse in Motion

1. The Trotting Horse 

In 1878 Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) created the mechanism that recorded the first photographs of a horse trotting. No photographer had ever been able to capture such rapid motion before. Muybridge’s multi-camera mechanism stopped time and seized motion itself so that he and his employer, California’s ex-governor Leland Stanford, could analyse the animal’s gait and improve the training of his racehorses.

2. The Photo Finish

Muybridge was at a racetrack when two horses finished in a dead heat. The usual volatile debate followed about which animal had triumphed.  The dispute tripped Muybridge’s innovative impulse, and soon Eadweard invented the first device to record the “photo finish”. In a letter to Nature magazine in May 1882, Eadweard Muybridge argued that every horse race should make use of a high-speed photo at the finish to determine the winner. A camera very much like the one that Muybridge deployed still determines the outcome of contested horse races.

3.  Photo Finish Ubiquity

The idea of Muybridge’s photo finish was later expanded to include other sporting events, including foot races and swimming contests. Today, on TV and in film, the grace and agility of divers and swimmers, sprinters and footballers are presented in stop-motion, yet another of Muybridge’s contributions to the way we see and perceive.

The first panel of Muybridge’s panorama (Eadweardmuybridge.co.u)

4. Panorama

In January 1877, Muybridge placed his view camera on the roof of railroad magnate Mark Hopkins’ half-finished mansion in the posh Nob Hill neighborhood of San Francisco and began the process that recorded the most detailed and complete – though not the first – panoramic view of the city.  Starting at 11am and using the contemporary equivalent of a telephoto lens, Muybridge took 13 photos as he carefully moved his camera around in 360 degree circle. The panorama remains the most complete description of the City’s “Golden Era” before its partial destruction in 1906 by an earthquake and subsequent fire.

5.  The American West and US National Parks

Throughout the late 1860s Muybridge produced a stunning portfolio of the wild beauties of the American West, including breathtaking documentation of Yosemite before it became a national park.  Multiple historians assert that the photos helped spur the National Parks movement itself. Theodore Roosevelt, the father of the US National Parks system, was directly influenced by Muybridge’s and other early photographers views of the American wilds.

6. Human and Animal Locomotion

Starting in the 1880s, Muybridge created an encyclopedic study of human and animal motion. Working at the University of Pennsylvania’s Veterinary School and using animals from the Philadelphia Zoo, Muybridge recorded the most complete anatomical survey of mammalian movement. Even over a century after his investigations, the range and particularity of his photographs has never been equaled. Physiologists, sports trainers and sportsmen all use the work to improve athletic performance.

7.  The Motion Picture Projector

In 1878, Eadward Muybridge created the world’s first motion picture projector, which he labeled a “Zoopraxiscope.”  Muybridge traveled throughout the U.S. and in Europe giving demonstrations of his machine’s seemingly magical capabilities.  There is some dispute about whether the French photographer Etienne Marey (1830-1904) produced an earlier device that used a rotary shutter to project multiple images.  The debate about whether Muybridge or Marey “fathered” the motion picture projector is still contested.

8. Artistic Influence

Muybridge was the first of the great pioneers of the moving image to influence several generations of artists, including Thomas Eakins and Francis Bacon, Edgar Degas and Giacomo Balla, Marcel Duchamp and David Hockney. Muybridge is, indeed, one of the most influential of early modernists. He helped shape the Movement’s emphasis on speed and simultaneity, capturing the possibilities inherent in every instant of time. Think, for instance, of the Cubists’ insistence on presenting multiple points of view in a single still life.  Eadweard Muybridge contributed to their vision of reality.

Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud
Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud

9. The Modern Triptych

The photographer pioneered the modern artistic triptych. Indeed, on 12 November 2013, Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud hauled in $142,405,000, the highest price ever paid at auction for a painting. Freud’s head appears in three views – one from the right, one from the left and one head on – precisely the same positions that Muybridge deployed in his investigations of human and animal locomotion.

10.  The nude selfie

The photographer himself was never camera shy, apparently delighting in photographing himself nude.  In his studies we see Muybridge walking, jogging, ascending two stairs, shovelling dirt, swinging a pick, throwing a discus or just standing in the buff, displaying his toned body without self-consciousness. Eadweard Muybridge should also be known as “The Father of the Nude Selfie.”

By Robert Seidman

Moments CapturedMoments Captured is published by Duckworth Publishers. Read more here.

  • ISBN 9780715647455
  • May 2014
  • £8.99 / B Format Paperback, 384 pages




Find out more about Eadweard Muybridge here.

Read more Silents by Numbers posts

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