Eadweard Muybridge
The Art History Archive - Photography History

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Biography of Eadweard Muybridge:
Father of Motion Pictures

See also: The History of Photography as a Fine Art

Eadweard Muybridge, whose early experiments in photographing rapid action are landmarks in the history of photography, was born at Kingston-on-Thames, England, in 1830. Coming to the United States in 1852, he was subsequently commissioned by the government to take pictures of the Pacific Coast. His work met with little notice until 1867, when a series of his photographs of Yosemite were exhibited abroad and brought him a medal. Somewhat later Muybridge joined an expedition to Alaska, and was one of the first to photograph that newly acquired territory. In 1870 he entered the employ of Bradley and Rulofson of San Francisco. This house was well known for its stereoscopic views, and some of their most interesting stereographs of the gold fields bear Muybridge's name.

By 1872 Muybridge was a capable and successful commercial photographer. In that year Leland Stanford laid a wager with a friend, said to have been $25,000, that a galloping horse lifted all four feet from the ground at once. He asked Muybridge to prove this contention photographically. Using wet plates and under a dazzling California sun, he succeeded in getting faint, highly underexposed plates, which were barely sufficient to settle the wager in Stanford's favor.

Five years later in 1877 Muybridge resumed the problem of photographing rapid action. Stanford underwrote the experiments, and made available not only his stable, but also the services of one of the engineers of the Central Pacific Railroad, John D. Isaacs. A battery of cameras was built in a shed beside a racetrack to record consecutive phases of motion.

Muybridge first used a mechanical device to trip the shutter-strings were stretched across the track, which the horses broke during their runs before the cameras. These strings were attached to the shutters, which closed, by the action of rubber bands. These shutters Were soon replaced with electrically controlled ones: the circuits were closed by the string method, or by the steel tires of a sulky running over bare wires lying on the ground. Muybridge was awarded two patents in 1879 for these synchronization devices.

The background was covered with rock salt, which gleamed in the sunlight, to give maximum contrast on the slow wet plate. The results were "diminutive silhouettes," not brilliant images but clear enough to furnish evidence for scientific study. A set of prints was deposited in the Library of Congress in 1878, others were published in scientific journals.Stanford formally published the experiments in a handsome quarto The Horse in Motion (1882), with a text by J.D.B. Stillman, and with many drawings after the Muybridge photographs. As Muybridge later complained, they were published "without the formality of his name on the title page."


Muybridge's work was specifically created for the purpose of stopping action. It was analytical; he strove to freeze motion, to hold still for our contemplation the most rapid muscular movements of man and beast. In doing so he was unwittingly creating the basis for moving pictures. All that was necessary to recreate the motion he had analyzed was to put the individual photographs in rapid succession before the eyes of an audience.

Rough hand-drawn analyses had long been shown in toys, the phenakistoscope or the zoetrope. Marey had tried unsuccessfully to make a scientific study of animal locomotion by this means in 1867. Posed photographs had been projected in sequence by Heyl in Philadelphia in 1870. But Muybridge was the first to show action photographs in one of the primitive motion-picture machines. To do this, he fastened a number of slides on a large disk. On the same axis but revolving in the opposite direction was another disk with slots along its radius. An arc light, a condenser, and a lens threw the images of the slides onto a screen. The motion recreated this way was of very brief duration. Each revolution of the wheel duplicated the previous action on the screen, so that the audience viewed a horse monotonously going through his paces again and again.

Muybridge claimed that he first employed this mechanism, which he called a zoopraxiscope, in the fall of 1879, at Sanford's house. A subsequent demonstration of the projector at Marey's studio in 1881 was described in Parisian news- papers. A spectacular demonstration at the Royal Institution in London the following spring brought wide- spread notices in the scientific press.

In 1883 he returned to America and lectured with his zoopraxiscope in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Largely at the instigation of the painter, Thomas Eakins, who had conducted similar photographic experiments, he was invited to continue his work in Philadelphia under the auspices of the University of Pennsylvania. Here, he radically improved his technique. He used dry plates, specially sensitized by the Cramer Dry Plate Company. Three batteries of twelve cameras each were equipped with custom-made //2.5 lenses. The shutters were released by an im- proved synchronizer, which he called the "electro-expositor," patented in 1883.

The shutters consisted of two sliding members; each pierced with a hole the size of the lens. One of these shutters was pulled upwards by a spring, the other was pulled downwards. In the course of their motion, the two holes coincided for a fraction of a second opposite the lens. Both shutters were released by a simple catch, actuated by an electromagnet.

The cameras could be arranged to take twenty-four successive exposures, or three sets of twelve exposures simultaneously from three points of view. The shortest possible exposure was estimated to be 1/6000 of a second. But Muybridge remarked: "A knowledge of the duration of the exposure was in this investigation of no value, and scarcely a matter of curiosity, the aim being to give as long an expo- sure as the rapidity of the action would permit."

A little later Muybridge designed a portable camera, eighteen inches square and four feet long. It was fitted with thirteen matched lenses, one of which served as a finder. Three plates 12 inches long and 3 inches wide were put into specially designed holders, which were divided into twelve compartments. The "electro-expositor" and the multiple plate holder simplified the technique; it was no longer necessary to stretch two dozen threads across the track or to lead two dozen plate holders for each "take."

From the negatives of his new camera, positives were printed on glass. These in turn were trimmed and assembled in various combinations and a master negative printed from which photogravure plates were made. Seven hundred and eighty-one such plates, each over 11 X 14 inches, were made. The prints from them were published by the University of Pennsylvania in 1887 and sold by subscription. Few cared, however, to purchase the complete set of Animal Locomotion comprising eleven hugo folio volumes and costing five-hundred dollars.

The subjects of these prints are varied and numerous, with about half representing animals. In addition to horses, there are elephants, antelopes, and other wild animals borrowed from the Philadelphia Zoo. The remaining and more interesting plates are studies of men and women in action. The most unusual plates are studies of ordinary action -a girl climbing stairs, a mother lifting a child, a woman carrying a pail of water, masons building a brick wall, workmen sawing wood. Muybridge intended the photographs to be helpful to artists, to be a kind of dictionary of the human figure.

Under the auspices of the U.S. Bureau of Education, he ran a "Zoopraxographical Hall" at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. He clearly explained the nature of this exhibition in a booklet issued for visitors: "In the presentation of a Lecture on Zoopraxography the course usually adopted is to project, much larger than the size of life, upon a screen a series of the most important phases of some act of animal locomotion, which are analytically described. These successive phases are then combined in the zoopraxiscope which is set in motion, and a reproduction of the original movement of life is distinctly visible to the audience."

Another attraction at the World's Fair was Edison's peephole moving-picture machine, the kinetoscope. It was a direct descendant of the zoopraxiscope and Edison, in a letter dated 1925 to the Society of Motion-Picture Engineers, wrote that the germ of his idea for moving' pictures "came from a little toy called the zoetrope and the work of Muybridge, Marey, and others."

Muybridge's work in the synthesis of motion was soon forgotten. He was the first to admit that his technique had been superseded, and to give credit to Edison for his perfection of the zoopraxiscope.

The awkward and expensive folio plates of Animal Locomotion were republished' at the turn of the century with halftone reproductions in volumes of a more convenient size and more modest price, under the titles Animals in Motion and The Human Figure in Motion. These books are still in demand by art students.

Muybridge passed the last years of his life in England and died in his native Kingston-on-Thames in 1904.

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