Tag Archives: Pre-cinema

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.

San-Francisco-Panorama.-Panel-one-EM8028
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.

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Mat Collishaw’s Magic Lantern at the V&A

If you’ve been walking past the Victoria and Albert Museum late at night recently, and you weren’t too distracted by the roadworks, you’ll have seen that the cupola of the museum is lit up by a moving 3D animation of moths. “That looks like a zoetrope,” I thought when I saw it. And I was very pleased to find out, when I looked it up at home, that it is indeed a zoetrope of sorts. The artist Mat Collishaw was commissioned by the V&A to make a work for circular space right at the top of the museum – and he chose to produce a vast (10m wide) version of the animated 3D zoetropes he had made before on a smaller scale.

Mat Collishaw's Magic Lantern
Mat Collishaw's Magic Lantern

Magic Lantern is a beautiful spectacle – and I would advise you to pay a late-night visit to South Kensington before it is taken down on 27 March, if you haven’t done so already. For me, the way that it combines a Victorian invention and Victorian architecture to create something that looks so 21st-century brings an endearing whiff of pre-cinema magick. As Collishaw says: “I’d like to have created something that’s very beautiful and beguiling and brings people in to look at it but I’d also like to smuggle in a little bit of doubt in there about what it is they’re actually becoming engaged with when they’re looking at the work.”

For a closer look, you can visit the museum garden to see a smaller model of Magic Lantern between 10am and 5.45pm. Magic Lantern will be in situ at the V&A until 27 March 2011.