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Muybridge, Eadweard, locomotion, motion art

Eadweard Muybridge and his photographic studies of motion

| 24.06.2009 14:40

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Maybridge first reflected on the fundamental property of photography, crushing what is in life continuously, and turning the world into a set of freeze frames that you can build in any order. Many of the Maybridge tables, showing the phases of the same movement, actually combine the pictures taken during the different photo sessions

In 1872, Liland Stanford, the former governor of California and chairman of the Central Pacific Company of Railways and Navigation, made a bet on 25,000 dollars with two of his friends. For those times the amount was very significant, but not for Stanford. In 1867, his firm paired with a rival company Union Pacific received a concession for the construction of a railway linking New York and San Francisco. Construction was completed in 1869 and made the already far from poor Stanford one of the richest people in America.

The argument erupted around tables showing the position of the legs of a horse running with different gaits. The tables were awarded according to the schedules of the famous French physiologist Etienne-Jules Mare and caused lively discussions in the international community of horses, to which belonged the ex-governor and his friends. Sources differently interpret the exact meaning of this dispute, but, apparently, the essence was as follows. From the drawings of Mare it followed that a trotting horse at a certain moment tore off all four hooves from the ground and seemed to hang in the air. Opponents Stanford (and perhaps Stanford himself – sources claim different things) it seemed implausible. To come to a common opinion on the basis of observations and establish the truth with the naked eye was not possible. And then the governor decided to turn to the best photographer in California.
Edward Maybridge and his landscapes
© Eadweard J. Muybridge

The photographer was Edward Maybridge. Irishman by nationality, he was born in 1830, and in the middle of the century he emigrated to the New World. In the 1860s, Meybridge became known for his landscape photographs taken, among other things, in Alaska and in the famous Yosemite Valley. Now it was not an ordinary task before him: it was necessary to lie in wait for the right moment and fix it on the tape.

The place of the experiments was Stanford's ranch called Palo Alto, 20 miles from San Francisco. At first, Maybridge tried to take individual pictures, pointing the camera at the horses, galloping against the white wall. But the photosensitivity of the emulsion was low, and the images were blurred (Maybridge, like most photographers of his time, used the mokrokollodionny process). However, even the increase in photosensitivity did not solve the problem at the root, since instantaneous exposure also involves the use of ultrafast shutters, which were very rare, not to mention the need to synchronize the exposure time with the moment the horse passed the lens. Finally, Maybridge needed to decompose the movement of one horse into separate phases – only in this case the experiment could be considered successful.

In 1874, there was an event that had nothing to do with the history of photography, but the project of Stanford and Maybridge nearly fell apart: after learning about the betrayal of his wife, the insulted photographer shot her lover. And although the court found him innocent, Mairbridge was still hiding from society for a couple of years and returned to his experiments only in 1877. Soon his efforts were crowned with success.
Edward Maybridge and his landscapes
© Eadweard J. Muybridge

Along the treadmill, Maibridzh installed 12 cabins (later their number was doubled), which were miniature photo laboratories, each of which housed a camera equipped with the best French lens and a specially designed electric slit shutter with a shutter speed of 1/25 second (in 1879, Maybridge patented This invention). From the shutter across the treadmill a thin rope is stretched, the break of which causes the release of the bolt. Not everything went smoothly: sometimes the rope did not tear, and then the cabin together with all the contents fell to the ground. Sometimes the horse refused to run, seeing obstacles in its path. But in general, the experiment was a success: it resulted in a series of photographs showing the exact position of the horse's body at different times of movement. It became clear that this result went beyond the narrow problem that was supposed to be solved at first. It's not for nothing that history is silent about who won the famous bet.

Pictures of Maybridge became the property of a broad scientific and artistic community. The photographer began to speak with public lectures, during which he not only showed stop-motion shots, but also – about a miracle! – made them come to life again and move right on the screen. To do this, he used a projection device called zoopraxinoscope – an improved version of a magic lantern, the principle of which was based on the phenomenon of persistence – the ability of the retina to retain the image of the object for some time (on average 1/3 of a second) after the stimulation stops.

In August 1881, Maybridge arrived in France, where he gave a lecture in the mansion of the illustrious artist-academician Meissonier, who was interested in American research in 1878, when the French journal Nature published his photos together with the enthusiastic review of Etienne-Jules Mare.

Maybridge returned to California as a world-class star. However, Liland Stanford reasonably believed that his role as inspirer and sponsor of the project is no less important than the role of his immediate performer. It ended in a quarrel between the photographer and his patron. Maybridge threatened Stanford with a court, but never realized his threat, switching to a new, larger project to study the movement of people and animals, supported by the University of Philadelphia.

Filming was carried out at the veterinary department of the university and in the zoological garden in 1884-1885. Maybridge used an improved automatic shutter model and a bromo-gelatin process, which spread at the beginning of the decade and allowed to reduce the holding time to hundredths of a second. As a result, 20 thousand glass negatives were grouped into 781 tables showing different types of movement of animals and people. The kit was published in 1887 under the title "Animal Movement: An electrophotographic study of the successive phases of animal movements, 1872-1885". The publication was distributed by subscription and was not cheap. But among the subscribers there were many famous scientists (Edison, Mach, Vogel, Tissandie, Helmholtz) and artists (Tiffany, Meisson, Bouguereau, Jerome, Puuv de Chavannes, Rodin, Menzel, Mille, etc.).

The latter circumstance makes one wonder about the possible influence of Maybridge's experiments on traditional types of artistic representation, especially painting. The problem is more complicated than it may seem at first. On the one hand, the interest in these experiments from representatives of the most diverse trends in the art of the end of the XIX century is striking. Thomas Eakins, behind whom the authority of the Academy of Arts stood, helped to ensure that the research of Maybridge was supported by the university. Maisson, having met with photographs of Maybridge, allegedly corrected the position of the horse's legs in two of his paintings. Edgar Degas was among the listeners at the first lecture delivered by Maybridge in Paris.
Edward Maybridge and his landscapes
© Eadweard J. Muybridge

At the same time, another subscriber of Maybridge, Rodin, explained the special dynamism of his statues by the fact that they combine different phases of one movement, that is, they sin against the literal truth, that which can be fixed with instant photography, for the sake of the truth of a deeper, connected With the fact that the body lives and moves – and it is necessary to convey the sensation of this movement. The dynamics of life are not subject to photography – in this opinion Rodin is not alone.

To many, including the same Meissonier, the photographs of Maybridge at first seemed implausible (why, in fact, and it was required to animate them) and, what is even more remarkable, ugly. This was written by Mare: "Does not the unknown seem ugly? Is the truth when we see it for the first time, always pleases our eye? We often asked ourselves this question, considering the snapshots of galloping horses. The position of the legs of a horse when running, established by Maybridge, often seemed implausible, and the artists who dared to reproduce it for the first time surprised and did not enchant the audience. But gradually all got used to these pictures that went hand in hand. We learned to see in nature what we did not notice before. "

Another interesting problem that arises in connection with the work of Maybridge, concerns their role in the formation of a new type of representation – cinematography. Maybridge constantly used the devices that allow him to "revive" his photo series and thereby reconstruct the process of movement, fragmented into static fragments. One such device – zoopraxograph – he developed independently. Apparently, it was the experiments of Maybridge that prompted the research thought of Thomas Edison, who in 1891 patented his own kinetoscope – an apparatus for reproducing moving images. But in the practice of Maybridge, the animation of photography played a secondary role. The focus was not the movement as such, but the position of the body at every moment of its fulfillment.
Edward Maybridge and his landscapes
© Eadweard J. Muybridge

Pictures of Maybridge seem to me illustrations of Zeno's aporia about an arrow that can not fly, because at each moment of its flight it occupies a certain place in space and, therefore, rests. If Zeno was familiar with the cinema, he would undoubtedly say that the illusion of motion is the result of alternating fixed frames.

Analyzing the movement, Maybridge de facto denied it, demonstrated its impossibility. The movement is present here purely purely – as our knowledge of it. Yet, what we see is the sequence of still pictures, each of which is similar to the previous one and at the same time slightly different from it. From the frame to the frame, the differences accumulate until everything returns to the starting point. In the description of this series, we have to resort to words like "first" and "after", but in reality it does not have "beginning" and "continuation" – its elements

The Maybridge Project is permeated with a positivist idea. He had no intention of creating a work of art. This happened involuntarily – as a result of a peculiar revaluation, so characteristic of the history of photography. In retrospect, we consider these tables from the point of view of a pure aesthetic form that generates specific effects and meanings, regardless of the original intention. Almost 100 years after Maybridge (and already in a purely artistic context), neoavantgarde artists adopted a similar form – first of all, minimalists whose works are also based on the repetition or variation of one and the same form. No wonder the minimalist composer Philip Glass devoted Maybridge to the opera "Photographer".
Edward Maybridge and his landscapes
© Eadweard J. Muybridge

In fact, Maybridge first reflected on the fundamental property of photography, crushing what is in life continuously, and turning the world into a set of freeze frames that you can build in any order. Many of the Maybridge tables, showing the phases of the same movement, actually combine the pictures taken during the different photo sessions. The photographer did not at all strive to ensure that they correspond exactly to some "real time" – and to what such a correspondence, if this "real time" is a sum of recurring moments. If we take pleasure in looking at the tables of Maybridge, then it is generated by the feeling that the whole world has miraculously stopped, time has turned into a series of static elements, whereas I, the spectator, have kept the opportunity to move freely among them.

Maybridge continued his experiments until 1893. At the World Exhibition in Chicago, his work was demonstrated in a special pavilion – "Zoopraxographic Hall." Some time after this the photographer returned to his homeland, to England, where he died in 1904










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