Thursday, April 23, 2009

Photographer of the week-Thursday April 23

This weeks photographer is Eadweard Muybridge. Muybridge began to build his reputation in 1867 with photos of Yosemite and San Francisco. Muybridge quickly became famous for his landscape photographs, which showed the grandeur and expansiveness of the West. The images were published under the pseudonym “Helios.” In the summer of 1868 Muybridge was commissioned to photograph one of the U.S. Army's expeditionsn 1872, former Governor of California Leland Stanford, a businessman and race-horse owner, had taken a position on a popularly-debated question of the day: whether all four of a horse's hooves left the ground at the same time during a Trot. Stanford sided with this assertion, called "unsupported transit", and took it upon himself to prove it scientifically. (Though legend also includes a wager of up to $25,000, there is no evidence of this.) Stanford sought out Muybridge and hired him to settle the question. To prove Stanford's claim, Muybridge developed a scheme for instantaneous motion picture capture. Muybridge's technology involved chemical formulas for photographic processing and an electrical trigger created by the chief engineer for the Southern Pacific Railroad, John D. Isaacs. In 1877, Muybridge settled Stanford's question with a single photographic negative showing Stanford's racehorse Occident airborne in the midst of a gallop. This negative was lost, but it survives through woodcuts made at the time.

By 1878, spurred on by Stanford to expand the experiment, Muybridge had successfully photographed a horse in fast motion using a series of twenty-four cameras. The first experience successfully took place on June 11 with the press present. Muybridge used a series of 12 stereoscopic cameras, 21 inches apart to cover the 20 feet taken by one horse stride, taking pictures at one thousandth of a second. The cameras were arranged parallel to the track, with trip-wires attached to each camera shutter triggered by the horse's hooves.

This series of photos, taken at what is now Stanford University, is called The Horse in Motion, and shows that the hooves do all leave the ground — although not with the legs fully extended forward and back, as contemporary illustrators tended to imagine, but rather at the moment when all the hooves are tucked under the horse, as it switches from "pulling" from the front legs to "pushing" from the back legs.

The relationship between the mercurial Muybridge and his patron broke down in 1882 when Stanford commissioned a book called The Horse in Motion as Shown by Instantaneous Photography which omitted actual photographs by Muybridge, relying instead on drawings and engravings based on the photographs, and which gave Muybridge scant credit for his work.

The lack of photographs was likely simply due to the printing constraints of the time but Muybridge took it as a slap in the face and filed an unsuccessful law suit against Stanford.

In 1874, still living in the San Francisco Bay Area, Muybridge discovered that his wife had a lover, a Major Harry Larkyns. On October 17, 1874, he sought out Larkyns; said, "Good evening, Major, my name is Muybridge and here is the answer to the letter you sent my wife"; he then killed the Major with a gunshot. Muybridge believed Larkyns to be his son's true father, although as an adult, the son bore a remarkable resemblance to Muybridge. Muybridge was put on trial for murder, but was acquitted as a "justifiable homicide." The inquiry interrupted his horse photography experiment, but not his relationship with Stanford, who paid for his criminal defense. An interesting aspect of Muybridge's defense was a plea of insanity due to a head injury Muybridge sustained following his stagecoach accident. Friends testified that the accident dramatically changed Muybridge's personality from genial and pleasant to unstable and erratic. Although the jury dismissed the insanity plea, it is not unlikely that Muybridge had experienced emotional changes due to brain damage in the frontal cortex, often associated with traumatic head injuries. {For a description of Muybridge's suggested neurological injury, see Shimamura, 2002.) After the acquittal, Muybridge left the United States for a time to take photographs in Central America, returning in 1877. He had his son, Florado Helios Muybridge (nicknamed "Floddie" by friends), put in an orphanage. As an adult, Floddie worked as a ranch hand and gardener. In 1944 he was hit by a car in Sacramento and killed. This episode in Muybridge's life is the subject of The Photographer, a 1982 opera by Philip Glass, with words drawn from the trial and Muybridge's letters to his wife.


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