Eadweard Muybridge, Elephant Walking

Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) and Étienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904) are important figures in the history of photography.

They are mentioned often enough, but where exactly they might stand in that history, or in any other history, is a different matter. Normally they are introduced as innovators who opened up the path to moving pictures – Marey especially, even if he was pipped at the post by the Lumière brothers. Muybridge is known as the racier of the two, with a reputation as a showman and self-promoter. His seriates (as they were known in the 1880s) of walking and gesturing figures are often reproduced as emblems of modern times: representative, perhaps, of the production line and of the excesses of ethnology – its liking for specimens and measurement. Marey, on the other hand, was something of a recluse. His private papers were destroyed on his death, and biographers only have the considerable scientific work to go on. His invariably elegant studies of movement, mostly taken at the Physiological Station set up in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris in 1884, impressed the Futurists and Marcel Duchamp around 1910 and secured him a walk-on part in the history of avant-garde. Conversely, he also assured the avant-garde of a mention in the history of science. It is probably that their importance has been recognised but misidentified.

Marey trained as a physician and became a researcher in physiology. He opposed symptomatology, the piecemeal study of organs as entities. Instead he emphasised systems, such as the circulation of blood. His idea was that if you could make records and charts of systems in action you could then examine these for significant irregularities. In the late 1870s he began to investigate movement in terms of its external traces: the flight of birds for instance, and the running of horses. The pictures we are familiar with are of overlaps, multiple exposures taken on a single plate. To clarify matters a moving figure might be taken dressed in white against a dark background. The intention was to secure a continuous trace which could be studied to show the workings of ankles and knees, for example.
[ms-protect-content id=”8224, 8225″]
Marey’s photographs are attractive in themselves, and his investigations were of use to the disabled and to the French army which was looking for ways to improve its performance after the setback of 1870 against the Prussians. (Marey’s story is told in detail by François Dagognet in A Passion for the Trace, 1987 and 1992, and by Marta Braun in Picturing Time, 1992.) But what do they have to do with photography in general? In 1900 his pictures were shown at the Exposition Universelle in Paris under the heading ‘Locomotion Comparée’ and introduced by a poster or panel showing studies of at least a dozen creatures in action: 19 frames of a striding man at the head of the arrangement, flanked by 40 of a sheep walking and another 40 of a goat running. The collection includes two sets of seagulls, one at 16 images per second and the other at 27, plus an eel, a dogfish, a lizard and a gecko – even 6 frames of a wasp. Marey cast his net widely and the Exposition Universelle poster may have been intended as a cross-section and as a summing up. What it points to, which is hard to see in front of specimen series published in books, is that he was interested in creatures which moved warily and erratically. Lizards and geckos, for instance, are well known for their stop-start tactics, darting and freezing. Sheep can be erratic movers and hens who have to search the ground in front of them and to keep an eye open for predators at the same time. Marey’s sequences, even if scientifically intended, invite us to identify with all kinds of creatures as they go about their business.

Empathy, the feeling of being at one with the object of contemplation, has always been a factor in photography although it is most notable in documentary pictures taken in the twentieth century. Any representation of people in a sympathetic way, and especially one which asks us to put ourselves in their position, is all to the common good. The tendency becomes noticeable around 1900, when faster films and shutter speeds made it possible to take people in action as they went about their everyday business. Not every street or work scene was empathetic, however. To be successful the photographer had to show individuals and small groups as they worked and conversed. The subject had to be visible in detail as he or she took the strain or craned to see more clearly. Marey’s animal studies, rather than his more purposeful work on man striding and exercising, rehearse the art of empathetic documentary as it unfolded in the art of Strand, Evans and all the others. Documentary was also at its most effective when it showed its subjects in action, and this stress on movement was fundamental to Marey’s understanding of how everything worked. A creature, according to his rubric, was to be understood principally as a material being in movement. That is what he asserted as a scientist and demonstrated as a photographer.

Muybridge, with whom Marey was in contact in the late 1870s, is best known for Animal Locomotion: 781 plates in 11 folio volumes, published by the University of Pennsylvania in 1887. The pictures, of men, women, horses, elephants, monkeys and dogs in action, were taken between 1872 and 1885, and they made his reputation. It looks as if he had found a winning formula and then thought it a good idea to stay with it. Contemporaries were certainly intrigued and they subscribed in droves: John Ruskin, for instance, Auguste Rodin and Puvis de Chavannes, the great painter of that era and a widespread influence. Perhaps they saw it as a useful reference book or as a marvel of technology, to be admired for its ingenuity. Compared to Marey he was a huckster, but that shouldn’t detract from his standing.

Recently Muybridge has been re-assessed as somewhat more than a technical innovator. The case on his behalf was re-opened by Rebecca Solnit in Motion Studies: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (2003). She took account of all his other pictures of trees, waterfalls, mountains, geology, Native Americans, street scenes, building sites and coffee production in Central America. In 1870, for instance, working as an all-purpose commercial photographer, he took pictures in Woodward’s Gardens, an early entertainment complex in San Francisco. One good find, a montage from nature, was a miscellany of six stuffed monkeys, large and small, against a background of fir trees. Any cameraman wanting to make money in 1870, and for a long time after, would have produced stereocards, as Muybridge did, knowing that you could get away with almost any topic so long as it had a certain physical presence. Stereocards, sold in sets of 20 or 30, had to be various and entertaining. Animal Locomotion, for all its technical excellence and shows of sobriety, is a high-toned version of the stereo set, rich in wonders and curiosities.

He had an eye for the incongruous and a sense of humour, too. In 1871 he was commissioned to survey lighthouses on the western seaboard of the U.S.A., and one of these was at Cape Disappointment in Washington State. The building stands out clearly enough along with the Columbia River and an adjacent shed. In the foreground, though, he remarks on a giant cannon which looks as if it is lying in wait for unwary traffic. Maybe it was there to warn against extreme fog, but all the same it looks piratical. Muybridge was the first of photography’s “solitary travellers” to whom one would turn for a particular take on things encountered. Fox Talbot, Le Gray and Fenton certainly had their own outlooks, but to some extent held in check by a sense of decorum.

In 1874 he shot dead his wife’s lover, the imagined father of his child – they hadn’t been long married. In 1875 he was acquitted on the grounds that the balance of his mind was disturbed after a serious stagecoach accident in 1860 – Rebecca Solnit goes into detail on the events in this extravagant life. On his acquittal Muybridge made himself scarce by undertaking a photographic tour in Central America. In Panama and Guatemala he took pictures of “the reception of the artist” in city squares decorated by cannons, guards of honour in uniform and clutches of dignitaries. He seems to have lived the kind of life that the Parisian avant-garde only dreamed about.

His art was founded on an idea of the incommensurable: himself as everyman, on the one hand, confronting continents, oceans and the marvels of nature on the other. In May 1873 he reported on the Modoc War as disproportionate an event as ever took place. The war was fought in the Lava Beds, on the northern edge of California, and it was a forlorn attempt by the dwindling Modocs to secure what had been a tribal area. Under the command of Captain Jack, a small group of Modocs returned to the Lava Beds where they eventually engaged with the U.S. army, a much superior force. The army was unable to fathom the intricate geology in which the Modocs had taken refuge and they, in their turn, were unable to make anything much of the army. Unable to cope, the Modocs eventually gave up and their leaders were hanged. Muybridge represented the impasse in the shape f a set of pictures of the convoluted Lava Beds as they might have looked to U.S. forces and another set of an infinite plain dotted with tents, as the Modocs would have envisaged the opposition. Muybridge was drawn, time and again, to such disproportionate topics: giant redwoods, the infinity of the city of San Francisco, and the Aladdin’s Caves they had constructed for themselves.

The time-interval pictures, which he undertook in 1876, suited his aesthetic requirements as they had developed since the mid-60s. The first pictures, of galloping and trotting horses, were taken at Palo Alto in California at a purpose built track looking like a shooting gallery-cum-train station. At the University of Pennsylvania, where he worked from 1884, the studio, often visible in the background of his studies, looks more rough and ready. This second site was practical to prosaic, and the small events he organised were mostly mundane: a few dance steps or a bit of action involving chairs or a small wooden staircase. Men ran, jumped and hurled weights. Women balanced cups, climbed and descended the wooden staircase and sometime negotiated stepping stones. How can he have dreamed them up – a naked woman (Model 13) trying to kick a man’s hat in the air, and another (Model 8) feeding a dog? It is tempting to see the events themselves as significant, and Muybridge may have had a scheme in mind: brisk male activities in contrast to the elegant movements of women. But it is likely that the participants along with their brief doings were no more than a medium allowing him to register and visualise time. Not all of the intervals were wondrously short. A woman descending a stairway and turning around (Model 8 in series 67, and plate 143 in Animal Locomotion) was timed at 0.181 of a second according to notes in The Human Figure in Motion (1901). What seems to have fascinated him was the finicky exactitude of the timing itself, up to 0.446 for a series in which Model 12 turns and carries a heavy jug up the studio staircase – paying attention, she had to be slow and careful.

The crudest of the raw material in the Muybridge assemblage at the University of Pennsylvania was the studio itself with its gridded background, floor mats and simple props. The naked and near-naked models, always shown full figure, look like operatives working to instructions. They were identified by number: low numbers, up to 15, for women, followed by men up to no. 69 and then some children in the low 70s. Then there were the events themselves, as prosaic as could be, and finally that exquisite fraction of a number, maybe not beyond imagining but certainly far removed from that guileless environment. The time-interval pictures are, or look like, the work of a magician dealing in commonplaces until the moment of disclosure – the point of it all, that exquisitely judges thousandth of a second.

Muybridge was a monteur, it appears, assembling crude realities, bureaucratic notations and exquisite fractions. The photographs themselves, the seriates in sets of up to 36, can easily look like a by-product, no more than records of events and installations. They take us back to that day, whenever it was, that models 59 and 61 took off their clothes and acted as blacksmiths hammering metal on a small anvil mounted on a log. When Marey took pictures of blacksmiths it was to note the differences between an expert and a novice, the better to advise on training. Muybridge’s pictures on the other hand, are an invitation to mathematics. With time-intervals of 0.1333 of a second how long does it take for each smith to complete a stroke? The pictures relate to that all-important fraction, and without them the fraction would be arbitrary. The pictures and the numbers are inter-dependent. One without the other would be diminished to the point of irrelevance. The pictures don’t exist because anything much can be learned from the look of them but because they provide a base for calculation and for the work of the mind, counting and multiplying, relating time and distance.

In Animal Locomotion and then more clearly in The Human Figure in Motion in 1901, Muybridge hit on what was fundamental in photography: its indissoluble connection with numbers and words. The links were obvious enough from Fox Talbot’s days onwards, but what Muybridge did was to develop a formula; crude effects, embodied in the naked (disclosed) bodies of the models, and rudimentary narratives supporting a set of supplements – titles, codes and fractions. The formula was particular to Muybridge although it survived modified throughout the era of documentary in which pictures were always the occasion for texts. You can see something of Muybridge’s schematic form in publications of the 1920s where crude picturings of reality are often combined with artful modern drawings (by Picasso and Leger, in such magazines as Variétiés, the Belgian Surrealist journal). Under these terms of reference photographs simply had to represent. They didn’t need t have internal articulations of the kind introduced by Cartier-Bresson, for instance, in the 1930s. Muybridge’s insight was that photography by itself adduced an idea of raw material and that the rawer the material the greater the incentive to reflection and to fancy. His naked actors, treading the boards and mats of his outdoor studio, represent reality unvarnished but completed and complemented by all those director’s notations. Without the crucial time-interval with its associated scripts and digits the originating scene would be, in effect, homeless. It is to this unsupported state that a lot of recent photography (e.g. Rineke Dijkstra and Lise Sarfati) has returned.

Published in Photoworks Issue 14, 2010
Commissioned by Photoworks

Buy Photoworks issue 14

Become a Photoworks Friend

Becoming a Photoworks Friend is the only way to receive a Photoworks Festival in a Box. Join now to get yours as well as a range of year round exclusive content, opportunities, invites and 20% off in our online shop.

Photoworks Opportunities

Keep up to date with our latest opportunities as well as ways to learn more about how to get involved with and support our work.

Sign up here

Become a Photoworks Friend

The only way to receive Annual 26 & get exclusive access to our events, content and a 20% shop discount