Eadweard Muybridge: Running Man

Fencing. (Movements. Male). Plate 349, 1887, by Eadweard Muybridge Fencing. (Movements. Male). Plate 349, 1887, by Eadweard Muybridge - Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C, Museum Purchase, 87.7.334
Posted: Thu Sep 2 2010

As Tate Britain showcases photographer Eadweard Muybridge, we uncover the complex life of the motion capture pioneer

If anyone is an ideal subject for a biopic (to my knowledge, yet to be made), it's Eadweard Muybridge. The Hollywood pitch might go something like '“How the West Was Won” meets “Cinema Paradiso”' or '“Buffalo Bill” through “The Eyes of Laura Mars”'. Any such film would feature dramatic mountain landscapes, a life-changing accident, a jealous murder, an abandoned child and a photographic invention that predates motion pictures and goes on to influence artists and filmmakers wordlwide.

Muybridge - instead the subject of a new Tate Britain show - was born here but spent most of his life in America. There, he became known for pioneering photographic work that started when he sent a galloping horse in front of a bank of 24 cameras attached to a tripwire. The resulting images proved that a horse at speed lifts all four hooves off the ground at the same time - a much debated issue of the day. His studies of animals and humans resulted in the publication of 'Animal Locomotion' in 1887, featuring over 700 sequences of people in various states of undress, engaged in everyday activities from drinking, walking up stairs and ironing to ball-throwing, acrobatics and wrestling. To demonstrate the accuracy of his staged stills, Muybridge developed a way to re-animate them: commissioning artists to paint his photos onto glass discs, which were spun on an adapted lantern slide projector. With his Zoopraxiscope, he had unwittingly invented an early movie projector.

The Muybridge exhibition, originally from Washington's Corcoran Gallery, is the first chronological suvey of all his work. It also includes some incredible landscape panoramas; notably of Yosemite valley, where Muybridge hauled cumbersome equipment up cliffs and over difficult terrain - even cutting down trees to capture views that were to inspire later photographers such as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston.

Muybridge was born Edward James Muggeridge - he tweaked his name several times during his career - in Kingston-upon-Thames in 1930. The son of a coal merchant, he upped sticks in the early 1850s to America, where he first worked as a bookseller. After a serious head injury in a stagecoach accident in 1860, his personality was said to be never quite the same.

Muybridge convalesced, possibly learning photographic skills back in England, before returning to San Francisco in 1866, to set up a business under the name Helios. Some have queried whether early Helios images were actually by Muybridge, but that would have been less important in the 1860s, when photography was a technical skill rather than an art.

Muybridge's personal life was also controversial. Learning that his much younger wife, Flora, had taken a lover, Muybridge shot and killed the man. When Flora herself died a year later, Muybridge put their infant son into an orphanage, believing that the child was not his. As another indicator of the very different age in which he lived, Muybridge was acquitted of murder on grounds of justifiable homicide.

Scandal aside, Muybridge was as much an inventor and entrepreneur as he was an artist; in fact one of his successful patents was for a washing machine. Yet his work has influenced artists in all areas, from Francis Bacon and Marcel Duchamp to stop-motion animators and composer Philip Glass, who wrote an opera about him. Muybridge's locomotion experiments can even be seen as a forerunner to the slow motion 'bullet time' special effect, famously used in 'The Matrix'.

To coincide with Tate's retrospective, Muybridge's native borough Kingston is celebrating his life with events and exhibitions under the title 'Muybridge in Kingston'. He spent his last ten years back in England, and died in Kingston in 1904, bequeathing his personal collection to the museum, including his Zoopraxiscope discs, most of which will be on display alongside prints, slides and other objects.

Kingston's Stanley Picker gallery has commissioned two contemporary artists to respond to the museum archives. The first to show, Trevor Appleson, has made a four-screen film, interpreting Muybridge's everyday movements with a dancer from the London Contemporary Dance School.

In later portraits of Muybridge, his glacially stern face and wild white hair and beard resemble the hard granite edifices, with white waterfalls, that he photographed in stunning detail in Yosemite. This leads us back to 'Muybridge - The Movie', for which only a grizzled Mark Wahlberg or an unhinged Christian Bale could possibly fill those pioneering shoes.

'Eadweard Muybridge' continues at Tate Britain until Jan 16 2011. See muybridgeinkingston.com for details of the events in Kingston, including Trevor Appleson's 'Dance of Ordinariness' at Stanley Picker Gallery