Archive for the ‘Photography’ Category

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Eadweard Muybridge: The Longevity of Legacy

January 4, 2011

The Christmas-New Year period is a time for family and nowadays it seems, a time for TV to cram more films into a fortnight than we have likely watched in half a year. A winter’s night in watching a film with a loved one has subsequently become part and parcel of the festive calendar. Fittingly then, what better art exhibition to indulge myself with than a retrospective of Eadweard Muybridge, a photographer whose pioneering approach to his medium paved the way for every type of motion picture we enjoy today.

Tate Britain’s rather unimaginatively-titled exhibition Eadweard Muybridge follows the artist’s career from humble beginnings to trans-Atlantic fame. Born Edward James Muggeridge in Kingston-upon-Thames in 1830, Muybridge is primarily remembered today for his innovative use of photography to capture the movement of horses. By creating The Horse in Motion (1878) he proved once and for all that, in mid-gallop, all four legs of a horse leave the ground at the same time – a distinction that had never before been recorded and could not be distinguished by the naked eye. To successfully achieve this, Muybridge devised and set up a line of cameras past which the horse would gallop. As it passed each camera the horse triggered a trip-wire activating the shutter of the camera and recording a static image of its position at that moment. This scenario resulted in a series of photographs that captured the horse at each stage of its gallop. Developing on his new-found technique, Muybridge expanded his field of enquiry to study the movement of other animals and humans, as well as photographing his subjects from different angles and in different gaits. He published these works in a book called The Attitudes of Animals (1881). Furthermore, seized by a compulsion to animate his lectures, Muybridge conceived what he called the ‘zoopraxiscope’. This device projected his images in sequence to create a facade of movement and in doing so Muybridge invented one of the earliest examples of the projected motion picture.

The Horse in Motion, 1878

Click here to view The Horse in Motion as a video file.

To put his achievements into some sort of contemporary perspective, the influence of Muybridge’s ground-breaking camera work can be seen over a century later in the ‘bullet-time’ sequence of The Matrix. The linear camera setup used to capture The Horse in Motion has been evolved into a circular rig of similarly individual cameras running on a time-triggered sequence around Keanu Reeves. Despite the conceptual evolution, the original Muybridge influence is nevertheless unmistakable. Quite rightly then, the progressive qualities of Muybridge’s pioneering works dictate their seniority within Tate Britain’s exhibition. It was another, arguably lesser aspect of his work however, that made a more lasting impression upon me – the often underplayed, but no less visually striking, landscape photography of his formative artistic years.

Muybridge first moved to America in 1855 where he lived in San Francisco as a bookseller, but by the end of the decade he had returned to England. It was not until 1866 that he returned to San Francisco and embarked on a career as a photographer. Declaring himself a ‘view artist’, Muybridge photographed the western landscapes of California including some of the earliest views of the striking Yosemite Valley. As soon as I saw these rugged landscapes in the exhibition I was immediately reminded of the work of Ansel Adams. Compare Muybridge’s Valley of the Yosemite, from the Mariposa Trail (1870) with Adams’ Yosemite Valley (1935) and the similarities become clear.

Valley of the Yosemite, from the Mariposa Trail, 1870

Yosemite Valley, 1935

Remarkably, both photographs show the exact same scene, though Adams’ image is framed slightly more delicately with greater obedience to the ‘golden section’ rule. I find it particularly difficult to negate the influence Muybridge may have had over his artistic and generational successor; the similarity is too striking. John Szarkowski, in the catalogue for Adams’ centennial exhibition in 2003, wrote that the artist’s early landscape work (of which Yosemite Valley is a part) “is conceived largely in graphic terms – as pattern – and is dependent primarily on choice of vantage point and framing.” The same qualities are found in Muybridge’s Yosemite images.
Both photographers also shared an emphatic desire to obtain the very best images: Adams traversed terrain over which his expedition party would not follow, whilst Muybridge put his life on the line, in one instance precariously hanging from a rope over the edge of a cliff in search of the perfect photograph. What makes an artistic connection between the two even more certifiable is the infamy and celebrity of Muybridge. In 1874, Muybridge shot and killed his wife’s lover but beseeched the jury “to send him forth free to resume that profession which is now his only love”. He was acquitted on the grounds of “justifiable homicide” and went on to produce his most famous works. It stands to reason that as a budding photographer, Adams would almost certainly have known of the infamous Eadweard Muybridge.
Horse Clearing an Obstacle, 1887-88

Ultimately then, what Tate Britain’s retrospective showcases is legacy. Whilst much of its wall space is rightly given over to documenting Muybridge’s pioneering, scientific achievements in photography, it also speaks clearly of his artistic influence. Beginning with the visual exploration of the Yosemite Valley landscape that stirred the artistic consciousness of his photographic successor Ansel Adams, the exhibition tellingly culminates with a sculptural piece by Edgar Degas (Horse Clearing an Obstacle, 1887-88) that drew specifically on Muybridge’s renowned documentation of animal locomotion. As well as Adams and Degas, Muybridge also influenced the likes of Marcel Duchamp and Francis Bacon. The art world owes much to the innovative mind of the humble Edward James Muggeridge of Kingston-upon-Thames, and in visiting Tate Britain I had been dutifully reminded why.

The exhibition Eadweard Muybridge closes in Tate Britain on January 16 2011. It does incur an admission fee.

For more information visit http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/exhibitions/eadweardmuybridge/default.shtm

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