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Photography’s Eccentric Genius: Eadweard Muybridge

Sotheby’s is auctioning off the works of Eadweard Muybridge, a brilliant artist who led a troubled life of accidents, adultery and murder.

Courtesy Eadweard Muybridge via Sotheby’s Online

Eadweard Muybridge was one of those grand eccentrics who crop up with surprising frequency in American art and particularly American photography. Like Dr. Harold Edgerton and O. Winston Link, he was a man in the grip of an obsession, but creative enough to transform the fruits of that obsession into indelible, timeless art.

The 19th-century photographer is best remembered for his sequential photographs of people and animals in motion. He is, without question, the father of time-lapse photography. Even people who have never heard his name are probably familiar with the by now ubiquitous second-by-second sequences of horses trotting and galloping. These images survive because they have more in common with the documentary emphasis of the 20th century than they do with the painterly impulses that drove photographers in the 19th century. They don’t look old; you don’t have to make any allowances for them.

Beyond that, though, there is something mysteriously hypnotic about Muybridge’s pictures. We don’t need them any longer to teach us about the mechanics of animal or human movement. There are other, far more sophisticated and reliable recording devices at our disposal. And yet, we can’t stop looking. Almost a century and a half after he created these pictures, his major work is still in print.

Muybridge also invented a machine he called a zooparaxiscope, which was one of the very earliest motion picture projectors—sans perforated film, it was somewhere between a movie projector and a flip book. If Muybridge wasn’t the messiah of modern cinema, he was certainly its John the Baptist.

He was also a first-class crank, a fact that you might discern from a broader survey of his work. To that end, check out the no-reserve online auction currently underway at Sotheby’s, which is offering a huge selection of Muybridge’s collotype prints, the sale of which will benefit the Denver Art Museum. Selections also will be displayed at the auction house’s New York galleries March 30-April 4 before the time-based auction closes on April 10.

Besides horses, the Sotheby’s show reveals, Muybridge shot an ark’s worth of animals drawn from the population of the Philadelphia Zoological Gardens in the 1880s, including camels, raccoons, and even a sloth (the closest he gets to making a joke, although it’s a pretty great joke). There are also hundreds of shots of humans, including men and women both clothed and nude and subjects, mostly men, who suffered disabilities, such as scoliosis and amputation—all recruited from a nearby charity hospital.

Muybridge seems to have had little trouble finding things for his male subjects to do. They run, jump, turn somersaults, lift weights, and play leap frog. Women, on the other hand, well, they baffle him. He lets them walk, balance baskets on their heads, and carry pails of water—lots of water gets carried in these pictures. Sometimes he let his female subjects dance with men. These images are the only ones locked securely in the cabinet of curiosities that was the Victorian mindset. There is nothing modern about them. They are prim, confused, and, when seen through contemporary eyes, more than a little insulting to their subjects.

Most bizarre, however, are the circumstances that got Muybridge started on his grand project. In 1872, when he was working as a commercial photographer in San Francisco, he was hired by the tycoon Leland Stanford, then the state’s governor, to settle a bet: did all four of a horse’s feet leave the ground at once while the horse was trotting? Muybridge set up a row of 12 cameras and began experimenting. Over the course of the next five years, he proved that yes, a horse is airborne for a split second while trotting and galloping. It is worth noting that Scientific American was one of the first publications to report on Muybridge’s experiments, a signal that from the outset he was always regarded as a researcher as much as an artistic photographer.

Typically for Muybridge, whose life seems to have always been some amalgam of tragedy and serendipity, a lot of his earliest experimentation was carried on while he was on trial for murder, having shot his wife’s lover in 1874. Upon acquittal, he embarked on a nine-month trip to Central America. While he was away, his wife died and his son was lodged first with a French couple and then in a Catholic orphanage. When Muybridge returned, he had the child moved to a Protestant orphanage and thereafter had little contact with the boy, whom he suspected was in fact the product of his wife’s affair, although pictures of the son as an adult bear a striking resemblance to Muybridge.

But then, as character witnesses for the defense testified at the murder trial, Muybridge was unstable and erratic, although they were careful to point out that this had not always been the case. When he first arrived in San Francisco in 1855 from his native England (where his name originally was Edward James Muggeridge—he changed it to accord, he said, with Old English spelling), the then amiable and easygoing immigrant became a successful bookseller. But then, on a trip back to England in 1860, he only got as far as Texas, where a runaway stagecoach crashed, killing one passenger and injuring everyone else on board, including Muybridge, who suffered a severe head wound that left him disoriented and partially amnesiac in the short run and ultimately, according to his friends, a different person—erratic, given to mood swings, and … artistic: it was only after the accident, and a long recuperation in New York and England, that he took up photography, on the recommendation of his physician, he said. And so it was that in 1867, he returned to San Francisco not as the merchant he had been but as an artist intent on recording the American West.

Until Stanford approached him with his wager concerning the precise location of a horse’s hooves in space and time, Muybridge was a highly successful landscape photographer known for striking images of Yosemite. Then his life changed once again.

After a falling out with Stanford in the late 1870s, Muybridge found a patron in the University of Pennsylvania and continued his photographic experiments in Philadelphia, where he often exchanged expertise with the artist Thomas Eakins, who shared Muybridge’s interest in motion studies. Between 1883 and 1886, he created more than 200,000 images, which were then edited down to the 781 plates that appear in Animal Locomotion: An Electro-Photographic Investigation of Consecutive Phases of Animal Movements, an enormous portfolio sold by subscription. (It is these images that Sotheby’s is auctioning.)

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Perhaps the most amazing thing about Muybridge is that you don’t need the backstory, weird and fascinating as it is, to consider him one of the most striking figures in the history of photography. He might have otherwise led an uneventful life, and we would still be enchanted by his work. Nonetheless, there is no getting around the fact that had it not been for that near-fatal stagecoach ride, he might be remembered, if remembered at all, as merely a successful bookseller. So, while it is surely cruel to celebrate someone’s near-death experience, it is equally impossible not to acknowledge that when he went flying out of that stagecoach, he sustained one of the most fortuitous head injuries in the history of art.