In about 1872, former California Gov. Leland Stanford bet $25,000 that a galloping horse was airborne -- all four hooves off the ground -- during its stride.
He hired Eadweard Muybridge, a photographer with a reputation for landscapes, to provide photographic proof.
Muybridge failed at first because the slow shutter speeds (1/12th second) gave only blurred images. But an improved and faster shutter ultimately won the bet for Stanford and set Muybridge on a revolutionary course -- studies of animal and human locomotion -- that had wide repercussions in photography and the arts.
Stanford won his bet but was unsatisfied with the quality of the pictures. He asked Muybridge to keep improving his technique so as to provide Stanford with pictures of his racehorses. He offered carte blanche to the photographer, who went about spending $40,000 on a setup involving a backdrop of white cotton with numbered vertical lines opposite a 40-foot-long "camera house" initially equipped with 12 cameras.
The pictures sent shock waves through the art community, because painters of that period had painted horses all wrong -- in a "rocking horse" style with all four feet extended.
Eventually, with the help of the University of Pennsylvania, he began motion studies of men, women and a wide variety of animals, and amassed 100,000 pictures, which were published in a $500 volume in 1887 by the university. The most photographed subject, according to the catalogue, was "women, nude," 180 in all. In an age when women displayed little flesh in public or private, there was considerable interest in this series.
Dover Books has now republished the entire collection of "Human and Animal Locomotion" in a three-volume set that will weigh down your finances ($85 to Dec. 31., $100 thereafter) and your bookshelves (almost 20 pounds).
Anita Ventura Mozley, curator of photography at the Stanford Museum of Art, writes a wonderful explanation of this monumental collection. All the plates from the 1887 gravure edition are here.
The effect is a numbing of the senses, however, because there is so much -- technical triumphs of the time, some exquisite beyond technique.
Amid the running dogs and leaping horses and flying birds are pigs, goats, dogs, cats, tigers, and elk plus children and adults dressed and undressed, throwing rocks, boxing and sawing wood.
Most plates show sequences from three different angles, achieved by using up to 36 cameras with an electromagnetic trigger. Even without today's high-speed motion pictures, there is little that Muybridge didn't show about his subjects. It is easy to see how his work influenced artists, including Remington and Eakins and Degas.