On our recent trip north to visit our niece Katie and hubby John in the Lake Tahoe area, we paused to take in the sites and history of Sacramento including the mansion of Leland Stanford (1824-1893). Stanford wore such hats as California governor, railroad baron, university founder…and race horse owner. One of the video displays at the mansion shows his search to settle one of the hot debates of the 1870’s: Is there a moment in a horse’s gait when all four hooves are off the ground at once?
There is a legend that Leland Stanford bet $25,000 that it was true. Common reaction at the time nixed the idea. After all, if God wanted horses to “fly”, He would have given the creature wings. But determined to settle the question, Stanford hired celebrity photographer Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) to prove it.
Actually Muybridge was born Edward Muggeridge in Kingston-Upon-Thames, Surrey, near London. He adopted the more dramatic moniker, believing it to be the true Anglo-Saxon spelling. However, he soon shortened it to Helios and became one of San Francisco’s most celebrated landscape photographers, taking more then 2,000 photographs with 20×24 inch negatives. His 1867 photographs of Yosemite Valley brought the valley…and himself…almost mythic status.
He accepted Stanford’s challenge in 1872 and came to “the farm” in Palo Alto. (It now is Stanford University.) After a bit of a detour –Muybridge went on trial for killing his wife’s lover— he found it wise to spend some time in Mexico and Central America even though he was acquitted on the grounds of justifiable homicide. Here he did photography work for Union Pacific Railroad, one of Stanford’s companies. In 1877 Muybridge came back to Palo Alto and continued his experiments in motion photography, using 12 to 24 cameras and a special shutter he developed that gave an exposure of 2/1,000 of a second.
Muybridge’s first attempt indeed captured Stanford’s horse, Occident, silhouetted against white sheets with all four feet off the ground. Although these original pictures didn’t survive, Muybridge continued to work with Stanford to develop techniques in the “science of animal motion.”
In 1878, he succeeded in photographing a sequence of frames produced on wet plate with 12 cameras that proved the “flying horse.” The slow wet plate collodion process produced images that were mostly silhouettes, but they showed something never before seen by the human eye.
Scientific American and other prominent publications featured articles on Muybridge’s accomplishment. However, Stanford invited his close friend, horseman and medical physician Dr. J.B.D. Stillman to produce a book analyzing the horse-in-motion. Stillman used Muybridge’s photography without crediting the photographer. Interestingly, when Muybridge sued Stanford and Stillman for copyright infringement, he lost his suit.
Eadweard migrated to the University of Pennsylvania after that where he developed sequences of human figures, both clothed and naked (including himself unclothed). This important collection helped scientists and artists study human and animal movement, and many of the sequences were published in 1887 in a portfolio, “Animal Locomotion, An Electro-Photographic Investigation of Consecutive Phases of Animal Movement.”. To simplify, imagine the “flip books” of your childhood. And actually, Muybridge’s sequences are available for kids in just this format in the mansion gift shop.
For all these reasons, and for the big one — the zoopraxiscope—Eadweard Muybridge is often called the father of the motion picture. To illustrate his lectures, he developed the’scope; its lantern projected images in rapid succession onto a screen. The images came from his photographs, printed on a glass disc. From the rotating disc came the illusion of moving pictures.
Muybridge’s zoopraxiscope display, an important predecessor of the modern cinema, was a sensation at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. Muybridge continued to promote his photography and publish his work until his retirement in 1900 at which time he returned to England. “Animal Locomotion” is still in demand by art students today.
I’m always amazed at the progress and prowess of people who came before. What a debt we owe to their ingenuity, their resilience. In honor of Eadweard Muybridge’s legacy, what are your favorite motion pictures?