Near the turn of the last century, so startling was photography's ability to stop time that at least one writer of the period worried about the public's ability to take in such wonders rationally.
They were mundane wonders, to be sure, but wonders nevertheless. Photographer Francis Blake stunned viewers with his simple, lyrical picture of pigeons in flight five birds caught in various stages of motion something rarely, if ever, seen before, especially in a photograph. Likewise, Blake's somewhat unremarkable photograph of a steam locomotive, taken from a bluff and with every detail showing, proclaims its specialness in its title: "Engine of the New York Express. Speed 48 miles an hour."
Remember: this was circa 1890. Only 25 years earlier, during the American Civil War, Mathew Brady and his associates were forced to document the carnage of that conflict nearly always after the fact images of bloody battlefields strewn with the newly dead. It was not for want of courage or skill, but because their equipment simply could not record motion well. Brady and others of that era made studio portraits under bright sunlight that streaked through skylights, while their subjects sat still for minutes at a time, their heads held rigid by vise-like neck constraints out of camera range.
It was into the burgeoning technological boom of the looming 20th century heralding faster film and faster shutters that one eccentric English photographer, Eadweard Muybridge [born Edward Muggeridge in 1830] moved from making beautiful wet plate landscapes of the American West to capturing on photographic film the mysteries of human and animal locomotion.
And it is to this bearded, obsessed and self-promoting photographer, inventor and accused murderer that we owe a tremendous debt.
Not only photographers, but also painters and other artists, as well as cinematographers. For Eadweard Muybridge [he changed his first name apparently to mimic the spelling used by ancient Saxon kings] made brilliant use of what early 19th century scientists called persistence of vision: the phenomenon whereby the eye retains a visual image for a fraction of a second after the source of the image is removed.
Through his experiments a bare handful of which are now on display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History Muybridge not only pioneered still photography to freeze motion and record images hitherto unseen and unseeable, but also laid the foundation for the invention of motion pictures: still images shown in rapid succession that transform themselves almost magically into movement owing to our inherent persistence of vision.
It began as a way to settle a bet.
In 1872, Muybridge, then already well known for his landscape work in America, was commissioned by railroad baron Leland Stanford, then the governor of California, to settle a bet as to whether a galloping horse ever had all four hooves off the ground.
The answer was yes, but it took Muybridge several years to provide the photographic evidence. Part of the delay was caused by the photographer's having to defend himself against a murder charge after killing his wife's lover.
[In 1872 Muybridge married a young divorcee, Flora Shallcross Stone. Two years later she bore Muybridge a son, Floredo Helios Muybridge. But Muybridge soon came to believe that Floredo actually was the son of Flora's lover, Harry Larkyn, whom Muybridge promptly shot.
Muybridge was imprisoned for four months before standing trial. At the trial, his lawyer argued successfully for justifiable homicide and the photographer was acquitted. He set off immediately on an expedition to Central America just to be on the safe side.]
To answer his wealthy benefactor's question about his horse, Muybridge ultimately set up 12 cameras along a racetrack, each with a string-activated shutter. The strings were held taut across the infield and when the horse passed it broke each string in succession, triggering a sequence of one dozen images, made at speeds up to an astonishing 1/2000 of a second. The image quality of these historic first pictures was poor many were little more than silhouettes but Muybridge's fame was assured. In subsequent years, Muybridge solidified his claim to be the father of stop-motion photography with his "animal locomotion" photographs, made at the University of Pennsylvania.
These images, several of which are on display in the Smithsonian show, are the closest Muybridge came to combining art and science vaulting nudes, figures ascending and descending stairs, etc. all captured in progressive motion within fractions of a second, things hitherto unseen by the naked human eye. But Muybridge's preference to think of himself primarily as an artist led him also at times to enhance his work, occasionally splicing together shots from other sessions or posing models in simulations of movement, to make his presentations more impressive.
But these "enhancements" do nothing to diminish this singular photographer's contribution to science as well as to art. At Penn Muybridge perfected his technique to include as many as three 12-image cameras, now electromagnetically controlled. Thus could he document and freeze motion from three different angles simultaneously.
These groundbreaking photographs did more than record the mundane. They recorded the invisible.
As the Smithsonian's Michelle Delaney notes, Muybridge's photographs, themselves inspired by 19th century realist art, "have in turn inspired artists to reconsider the drama of the smallest gesture: the turn of a woman's head as she walks… or the bend of a man's knee as he runs." These small gestures, unseen until they were revealed by photography (or only rarely by the genius of painters like Leonardo or Michelangelo) are the reason Eadweard Muybridge's motion studies fascinate us.
For in helping us to see our world frozen in motion, Muybridge also helped us to better see ourselves.
FREEZE FRAME Eadweard Muybridge's Photography of Motion. Through March 15, 2001, National Museum of American History, 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW. Daily (except Christmas Day) 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Free admission.
Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.