A Man Who Stopped Time to Set It in Motion Again
By KAREN ROSENBERG
WASHINGTON — Technology moves fast, art slower. You could say that art is still catching up to Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904), a pioneer of stop-motion photography and early filmmaking.
In “Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change,” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, you can see how Muybridge himself got up to speed with industrialization, mechanization and the other radical changes of the late 19th century.
His impact on the 20th is difficult to overstate. The writer Rebecca Solnit, in her 2003 biography, called Muybridge “the man who split the second,” aligning him with the inventor of the atom bomb. Cultural signposts as diverse as Francis Bacon’s paintings and the performance-capture technology of “Avatar” can be traced back to the trotting horse that Muybridge photographed on a racetrack in Palo Alto, Calif.
In the Corcoran’s thorough and absorbing show, organized by its chief curator, Philip Brookman, that horse doesn’t appear until the final couple of galleries. But you can see Muybridge’s ideas about time and movement develop in richly layered landscapes, panoramas and sequential views of buildings under construction.
Born Edward James Muggeridge in the market town of Kingston upon Thames, a few miles southwest of London, Muybridge ventured to San Francisco around 1855 and made his name as a bookseller. After an 1860 stagecoach accident left him with a major head injury, he recuperated in England, where interest in photography was growing fast, and there he took up the camera. He returned to San Francisco as a photographer, one of many trying to capitalize on the market for Western landscapes.
There, he made famous and powerful friends, including Leland Stanford, the politician and railroad magnate whose collection of racehorses he famously photographed. Muybridge became a celebrity himself when he was tried, and acquitted, for the 1874 murder of his wife’s lover. (The head injury played a role in his defense.)
Along the way, he changed his name from Muggeridge to Muygridge and finally Muybridge (pronounced MOY-bridge); Edward became Eadweard (pronounced Edward). On his business cards and in advertisements for his studio he called himself Helios, the sun god from Greek mythology. The moniker was a clever reference to “sun pictures,” early photographic prints made in sunlight, but it also branded him as a traveling, outdoor photographer. The logo on his stationery showed a winged camera.
His early works are mostly stereographs (two-part photographs that give the illusion of three-dimensionality when seen in a special viewer, or stereoscope; the museum provides glasses that perform the same function). Like other stereographers, Muybridge exploited the technology by seeking out views with sharply receding perspectives.
In other ways, though, Muybridge distinguished himself from the competition. Whether surveying the Yosemite Valley or the booming city of San Francisco, he looked for unusual vantage points and played up discrepancies in scale. In “The Astonished Woodchopper,” one of his most theatrical images, a man with an ax confronts a giant sequoia.
He also wasn’t above using special effects: printing pictures extra dark so that they appeared to have been exposed under moonlight, or adding clouds from a second negative. Some of these tricks were standard practice for 19th-century photographers, but they may come as a shock to viewers who think of Muybridge as more of a scientist than an artist.
He seems to have been comfortable with both disciplines. And as Ms. Solnit argues in an eloquent catalog essay, there was a lot of crossover between the two: “Muybridge was as much an artist for scientists as he was a scientist for artists.” She notes that the painter Albert Bierstadt adapted compositions from Muybridge’s Yosemite photographs, just as the geologist Clarence King studied them for traces of glacial activity.
His album “Yosemite Views,” made with considerable effort and at great expense, is certainly stunning. Muybridge carted a mammoth-plate camera up and down the steep cliffs to look for vertiginous angles that would separate his album from an earlier one by Carleton Watkins.
He paid special attention to Yosemite’s waterfalls, which appear as milky, vaporous cones because of the images’ long exposure times. As the filmmaker Hollis Frampton has written about Muybridge’s work, “What is to be seen is not water itself, but the virtual volume it occupies during the whole time-interval of the exposure.” As it happens, the Yosemite album dates from 1872 — the same year that Muybridge began his experiments with Stanford’s prize racehorse, Occident.
More modern and striking is a series he made a year earlier: a government commission to photograph lighthouses along the Pacific Coast. The subject was tailor-made for him, from the cliffs rising hundreds of feet above the sea to the beacons whose technology seems with hindsight to anticipate that of moving pictures. These are some of Muybridge’s most gorgeous and versatile images, in tune with 19th-century Romanticism and 20th-century Structuralism alike.
But Muybridge wasn’t just a landscape photographer, he was also a photojournalist — one who, more often than not, worked for powerful interests. In 1873 the United States Army commissioned him to document the Lava Beds in Northern California, where war had broken out between the Modoc Indians and the government. His photographs were meant to assist the Army in moving troops through the inhospitable terrain, but some were published in magazines and newspapers. (In one, marketed as “Modoc Brave Lying in Wait for a Shot,” the subject was, in fact, a member of a neighboring tribe who worked as a scout for the military.)
The government gave Muybridge access to major building projects like the San Francisco City Hall and the city’s branch of the United States Mint, which he photographed at various stages of construction. And the Pacific Mail Steamship Company commissioned from him a series documenting coffee production in Latin America meant to reassure foreign investors with its orderly and hierarchical depictions of labor.
His most significant connection was undoubtedly his friendship with Stanford. It’s enshrined in Muybridge’s mesmerizing “Panorama of San Francisco,” shot from the rarefied precipice now known as Nob Hill, where Stanford was putting up an enormous mansion.
Yet the facts of Muybridge’s elite patronage were at odds with the democratic potential of his chosen medium. He seemed to understand this, especially in his later years when he marketed his locomotion studies to the masses at events like the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.
Materials from those studies — photographs, books, letters, patent models — are packed into the show’s final three galleries. Also here is Muybridge’s only surviving Zoopraxiscope, a device he invented by adding a spinning glass disk to a lantern slide projector.
The Zoopraxiscope can’t be operated by visitors, alas, but a digital projection animates some of Muybridge’s well-known photographs of animals, men, women and children in motion. The men run, jump, wrestle and pour buckets of water on one another. The women do some of these things, but they also wash and iron clothes. Many of the sequences are antic; more than a few are erotic, or homoerotic. They’re art, science and popular entertainment, and they’re what people think of when they think of Muybridge.
But, for me, the show’s defining moment was a single still image — a photograph from 1872 of Muybridge sitting in front of a giant sequoia. It seems to encompass geologic and human time, eras and instants, the rings of the tree and the horse circling the track.
“Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change” continues through July 18 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th Street NW, Washington; (202) 639-1700, corcoran.org.