Sunday, November 7, 2010


Muybridge 5
Muybridge  began 12 years of work at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, in 1884.  The most significant product of this period was the lengthy 11 volume collection titled Animal Locomotion: an electro-photographic investigation of consecutive phases of animal movement (1887).   This is the work for which Muybridge is most famous. 

It contains humans and many animals moving in almost any manner imaginable.  Some viewers detect a whiff of voyeurism in this allegedly scientific research that sometimes recorded nude men and women, usually solo, that were working, playing, boxing, walking down stairs and running across sets, elaborately filled with banks of cameras, at 12 frames per plate.

And this brings the discussion back to the current retrospective of Muybridge’s work.  The celebrated issue is not the disputed provenance or the utility of the science, but the importance of the art of motion.  Typically this collection would be staged at the Smithsonian or MIT in the USA, or at the Science Museum or the National Media Museum in England.  Instead, it is touring some of the most prestigious art museums in the western world because the organizers are asking us to consider Muybridge as an artist. 

In addition to his landscapes and commercial work, Muybridge produced over 20,000 stop-action images that made it intriguing and easy for any viewer to appreciate the natural beauty of human (and animal) motion.  Prior to the application of Muybridge’s ingenious techniques, only a few artists had the talent to reproduce this vision of motion, and none could agree on the exact gait of a galloping horse.   Recently archivists meticulously examined the original working prints, and they found Muybridge sometimes reshot sequences out of order, and other times he deleted key frames.  In other words, he freely edited his work to achieve the final results.  He appears to have regularly considered artistic value over scientific measurement.  Considering this attitude, it is no wonder the cubist studied him.

For me this notion is most apparent in the above illustration, 12 panels from 1878.  Number the frames from top left,1, to bottom right,12.  Number 1 is as smooth as a start can be in the middle of a sequence of frozen motion.  2-3 display how famously a horse can fly as it transitions from “pulling” with fore quarters to “pushing” with hind quarters.  In 3-5 the horse looks rather stocky, and in 9 it could be mistaken for a large dog.  The most graceful frames are 10 and 11, where the single hoof on the ground, really the finger tips, is approximately perpendicular to the straight leg line.  Finally, in 12 it is the horse that stopped the motion instead of the photographer.  Who else but an artist would choose to end the series with this simple silhouette.

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