Eadweard Muybridge: The Curious Forefather of Cinema

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Animal Locomotion: Plate 765 (Crow in Flight), 1887© Eadweard Muybridge, courtesy of Beetles+Huxley

A newly opened exhibition at London's Beetles + Huxley gallery explores the photographic pioneer's impact on the future of moving image

Who? Eadweard Muybridge was the pioneering 19th-century photographer best known for his stop-motion images proving that horses could fly – if only for a fraction of a second. Born in Kingston-upon-Thames in 1830, the eccentric Englishman devised a machine called the zoopraxiscope which could animate and project sequences of movement caught on camera, and thereby revolutionised not only still photography but also our understanding of vision and time. Inscribed in the history books as the forefather of cinema, Muybridge was also a Wild West landscape photographer, documentary artist, war correspondent, touring ‘celebrity’ lecturer and keen self-promoter.

Né Edward Muggeridge – a name that was far too drab for his own liking – the (eventually) long-bearded, self-styled man adopted various pseudonyms throughout his career, including Helios, after the Greek sun god. At 20 years old with wide eyes and itchy feet he set sail for New York, where he would first become a publishing agent, moving from the Big Apple to the booming ‘capital of the Gold Rush’, San Francisco. A stagecoach accident brought him back to England, but once he had recovered six years later, he returned to San Francisco as a fledging photographer. Not long after he would make the grand impact on history that his business card, with its emblem of a camera beaming light and bearing wings, so ostensibly begged.

What? In an era of enormous expansion, it was Muybridge’s grand vistas of Yosemite valley, paying homage to America’s glory, which likely grabbed the attention of government officials, who would send him on documentary commissions from the Lava beds of California to Alaska and Guatemala. If his ethnographic studies in Central America revealed so called new peoples and environments, back in North America Muybridge’s progressive documentation of sprawling cities – namely, a gigantic 360-degree panorama of San Francisco – attested to his flare for combining technological and scientific analysis with artistic vision.

This was no more apparent than in his renowned Animal Locomotion project of the 1880s, which is the fascinating subject of a newly opened exhibition at Beetles + Huxley gallery in London, comprising 65 collotype prints. Triggered by an earlier assignment to conclude whether or not the four hooves of a galloping horse simultaneously lift off the ground, Muybridge’s photographic studies of animals and humans in movement would come to serve, like the advance of railways and the experience of abbreviated time, as hallmarks of modernity.

Why? Curiously enough, the innovator’s subsequent animated projections of these weird and wonderful locomotion images – featuring the likes of running men, dancing women, flying birds, and trotting pigs – did not capture the imagination of the public attending the 1893 Chicago’s World Fair, where his moving images were screened. As it had never been Muybridge’s intention to make films – he had only wanted to prove a point about those horses before getting a carried away with his gadget – it was not until the Lumière Brothers commercialised early forms of cinema a couple of years later, that culture would clock onto Muybridge’s cinematic significance. From that point forth, however, artistic commentators have struggled not to look back.

From Duchamp and Hockney to Bacon and the 70s Conceptualists, artists have borrowed the mechanical visual language of Muybridge to various ends. While Duchamp may well have found inspiration in his locomotion studies for his own Cubist spectacles of movement, Bacon was drawn to the unnerving hypnotic power of Muybridge’s serial imagery. It was arguably the conceptual artist Bruce McLean who momentarily fissured the cultural monopoly Muybridge held on our visions of movement, with his humorous series of self-portraits falling off a plinth. Certainly, Eleanor Antin flagged up the patriarchal ideologies entrenched in the Victorian photographer's work, where women act coyly and men leap and jump abound. But if in retrospect we can shed light on Muybridge’s work, that doesn’t subtract from the cinematic, if accidental, foresight of this photographic pioneer.

Eadweard Muybridge: Animal Locomotion is open at Beetles + Huxley until September 2, 2017.