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Photo Finish 

An animated appreciation of Eadweard Muybridge

Published October 25, 2005 at 11:28 p.m.

Animation is fun, but that doesn't mean it's easy. People familiar with the dancing California Raisins, Wallace and Gromit, or the sand-on-a-blackboard cut-scenes from early 1970s and '80s episodes of "Sesame Street" sometimes don't realize how the movement they see was manufactured. I didn't either, before I tried doing it myself, painstakingly moving the subject of the image a teensy bit from one frame to the next, and trying to keep my thumbs out of the way. I learned what I now know largely thanks to an odd-duck photographer named Eadweard Muybridge, whose pioneering work from 1872 to 1904 documented the way things move.

"Eadweard Muybridge: Studies in Locomotion," on exhibit at the University of Vermont's Fleming Museum through December 16, features 46 of his groundbreaking images. Ask Curator Evelyn Hankins what the show is about and she'll talk about how high-speed photography -- along with the telegraph, the railroad and other late-19th-century innovations -- changed our perceptions of space and time. She'll also point out how the ways in which Muybridge's models are posed and dressed -- or not -- reflect Victorian social mores. For me it also offers a rare chance to check out the original versions of the somewhat fuzzy plates that had become my touchstones for how to make inanimate armatures appear to move convincingly.

I first became interested in stop-motion animation, in which still photos are strung together to create the illusion of movement, when I was dating the man who's now my husband. After teaching Flash animation for a few summers at Fledgling Films, Kingdom County Productions' teen camp in Lyndon, Gahlord wanted to get away from computers and into cameras. His enthusiasm was infectious. Since my dollhouse days, I'd loved building and playing with miniature props.

We struck a deal: I'd build to-scale models and sets, and Gahlord would animate them. We came in fourth in the now-defunct Magic Hat Win-A-Bar contest with a sketch set in a cardboard tavern. Later, we shared a slot at Burlington City Arts' 2004 "Process/Progress" show, with a short piece about an office worker whose head is a magnifying glass. Gahlord did most of the camera work. I was happier wielding small brushes and tea-staining plaster set walls. But I did get behind the lens a few times to shoot motion tests, and was surprised by how hard it was to make something simple -- say, a figure walking -- look life-like. Mine sort of shuffled, closer to zombies than people. It was Muybridge who helped me improve.

The British-born cameraman was known in the San Francisco area as a landscape photographer when he was hired by Leland Stanford, the railroad baron and California governor for whom Stanford University is named. According to an apocryphal story, Stanford had wagered that at some point during a horse's gallop cycle, all four hooves are simultaneously off the ground. His biographers dispute the claim, asserting that Stanford wasn't a betting man. They state that as a breeder of racehorses, he was probably just interested in understanding how they run. Regardless, Stanford enlisted Muybridge to help settle the question, and put at his disposal a large sum and the assistance of his numerous railroad engineers and stable hands to help him do his work.

Over several years, Muybridge tinkered with camera prototypes to allow shutter speeds of a previously unimaginable 1/1000 of a second. Horses ran or pulled traps in front of an array of cameras, set up in front of a wall marked to show dimensions. Electrical trip-circuits and innovative photochemical techniques helped break down the animals' complex movements into a revealing series of still images. The project confirmed Stanford's hunch, and provided photographic evidence.

The revelation didn't just rock the scientific community, but also the worlds of fine and commercial art. Frederic Remington, a contemporary painter, illustrator and sculptor of the American West who'd built his reputation partly on his portrayal of horses, took on a method of representing a horse in motion that looked almost identical to a Muybridge photograph. After breaking with Stanford and touring Europe -- to escape a murder scandal -- Muybridge went to work for the University of Pennsylvania, doing for the human body and other animals what he'd done for horses.

At UPenn, Muybridge had access to all of the animals in the Philadelphia Zoo. Hence the camel and ostrich whose running patterns grace the walls of the Fleming exhibit. Describing one of the few series shot with its subject entirely in a cage, Hankins says, "It's not as interesting visually, but I just had to include the lion." The show's 46 pieces are separated into six sections: two cover exotic critters, dogs, pigeons and, of course, horses, while the rest feature human figures.

Men, women and children appear in stages of artistic undress, the better to view their bodies' musculature and shadows as they model different actions, such as walking, running, fencing, playing tennis and watering a flowerpot. Hankins is fascinated by the discrepancies of dress and motion. "There's one that's of two naked women throwing water on each other," she notes. "If that's not a Victorian male fantasy, I don't know what is!"

All of this is intriguing, but for me the point is the plates' level of clarity and detail, compared to my serviceable but somewhat muddy Dover editions of Muybridge. The high-quality, silver gelatin prints, on loan from UVM's Special Collections Department, give the impression of looking through a window into a past that seems alive. Their sense of motion is uncommon in late-19th-century photos, which often required subjects to remain rigid. Facial expressions are more visible, and the little girl running to pick up a doll on the last wall looks as if she could be my next-door neighbor.

The exhibit is compelling fare for anyone interested in motion photography, or movies, for that matter. Remember the jaw-dropping, time-stopping special effect that made its cinematographic debut in the first Matrix movie? It's achieved using methods similar to those of Muybridge, except with an array of movie cameras. Some people call Muybridge "the father of the moving image." Hankins also suspects the photographer used himself as a subject -- visitors can have fun guessing which au naturel figure might be him. Here's a hint: Look for the pickaxe.

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Meghan Dewald


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