Eadweard Muybridge whom you probably know is the famous photographer, the first ever human ever to show how humans and animals moved. Muybridge was a pioneer in photography when you come to think about it, he found new uses for the medium, and this was at a time when photography was still in its infancy. Nowadays we talk of cameras, such as the Sony A9, that do 20 frames per second and so on, but this incredible work by Muybridge was done in a day and age when cameras didnt even have a frame rate beyond a mere single number!
Muybridge begain this incredible task of photographing living beings’ locomotion as early as 1872. That’s practically at the dawn of photography, it hadn’t been around more than a couple of decades and different processes and techniques were still being tried and tested , there were no quick ways of acquiring a photograph. I mean, we’re really damn lucky now we can do so much better than Muybridge today because we have cameras with amazing frame rates. But thats not the point. It wont make a single difference to the pioneering work Muybridge did. Just because we have a DSLR or mirrorless in our hands, it would never make any of us better than him.
The point is, Muybridge’s work simply cant be surpassed. That is a fact. In 1872 he was asked to settle an argument, which was that horses hooves are all off the ground simultaneously (just as a pair of human legs are too when running!) That was a tall order. Today one can do it without pretty much effort. But back then, Muybridge didn’t have the technology. Oh no. He had to think hard and adapt what technology there was to prove that horses literally fly. In the meantime he had to delay the work some years due to spending time away from America after a murder case in which he was acquitted. He had time to think on his initial efforts, because these hadn’t been able to conclusively prove horses didn’t touch the ground when in flight.
Muybridge’s photographs showing the horse in flight. Source: Wikipedia
We can attribute the notion of camera frame rate to Muybridge. Instead of one camera, he would use many. In fact twelve were used. Each would take a picture a split second apart. In 1878 Muybridge was finally able to prove that horses literally do fly. It was a simple set up, but its very clever too. He used cameras tethered to a trip wire and the horse in question would race along, tripping each camera and firing the shot. And there, in the sequence of photographs, is the very proof that horses are not even touching the ground during their gallop. At best there’s just one or two hooves striking the ground helping to keep its momentum sustained.
The other thing about Muybridge is his photographs are well defined. They’re not blurred. Again that was a further technological leap Muybridge achieved. If you look at the 1878 picture he says these photographs were taken at 1/25th of a second. Wow! Today we can act cool and take pictures as fast as 1/8000th of a second or more. Yet Muybrigde just didnt have that sort of technology. Cameras of the day could only manage 15 seconds or more. So he had to develop shutters which were fast enough to freeze the subject. 1/25th a second isnt really fast by today’s standards, however in the 1870s that was incredibly fast. Other factors, including working out the correct distance from the camera to the subject also helped him to gain the clarity needed in his photographs. Some of these, just a few I must stress, are indeed blurred, they’re not well defined, but given the time and effort and technology available back then, Muybridge’s work was an incredible feat.
Muybridge’s high speed photography became the precursor to animation and paved the way for movies by showing how a series of images could perceptively be shown as that of a moving image. In the same way the naked eye cannot see a horse in flight, the images shown in a fast flowing sequence cannot be seen as separate as in a movie. The eye may fool the mind but Muybridge was the first person also to show how we construct the world and prove it was not how things are in reality.
Currently Beetles + Huxley gallery in Piccadilly have an exhibition on Muybridge. 65 of his collotype prints can be seen. These are from the Animal Locomotion series taken during the mid 1880’s and its an exhibition worth seeing.
Nice presentation leaflet from Beetles + Huxley’s Muybridge exhibition.