Poetry in Motion

Photographic pioneer, inventor and killer, Eadweard Muybridge was a very complex character indeed

Michael Prodger

In 1760-1, George Stubbs painted Racehorses Belonging to the Duke of Richmond Exercising at Goodwood. It shows the duke watching three of his thoroughbreds training. The horses gallop out of frame in a line, both front and back legs fully extended as pairs. This would have meant that the gallop was really a series of extended bunny hops. It was a longstanding pictorial convention that didn’t seem odd to Stubbs — a scientist of the horse as well as its greatest artist — or to viewers for a century and more afterwards. Horses’ legs move too fast for the human eye to distinguish the actual sequence of stretch and contraction as they run: Stubbs painted what he thought happened, not what actually did. 

It wasn’t until the mid-1870s that the British-born photographer Eadweard Muybridge isolated the truth of equine movement. At the stock farm owned by the politician and tycoon Leland Stanford, Muybridge set up a large white screen, a white lime powder running track, a bank of 24 cameras tripped by a clockwork mechanism of his own invention and photographed one of the governor’s horses running. The resulting sequential images of motion miraculously frozen revealed nothing less than one of Nature’s secrets: they were a scientific, artistic and photographic revelation. 

Muybridge’s celebrated horse photographs — as well as those he took of other creatures in motion, from deer and monkeys to elephants and humans — form the centrepiece of the exhibition celebrating this remarkable man at Tate Britain (until January 16). His other work, however, is no less interesting. Muybridge spent much of his career in America and photographed the transcontinental railroad, the building of San Francisco, the wilderness of Yosemite, the lighthouses of the Pacific coast, Native Americans and the Indian wars, settlers and plutocrats. He chronicled, in other words, how the West was won. 

Muybridge himself symbolised the pioneering spirit. Born plain Edward Muggeridge in Kingston upon Thames in 1830, he emigrated to America and changed names as well as continents, becoming first Edward Muygridge and only later Eadweard Muybridge (the version of his Christian name coming from the Saxon spelling of King Eadweard on Kingston’s Coronation Stone). His new-nation mentality first manifested itself in his inventing a printing device and a washing machine. His fortitude can be seen in the sheer effort necessary for his work. His Yosemite pictures, for example, required exhausting expeditions into the wild carrying weighty cameras, boxes of 5½-inch by 8½-inch glass negatives, as well as the tents, chemicals and apparatus necessary for an ad hoc darkroom. His mental rawness is clear in his calculated murder of his wife’s lover, a theatre critic called Harry Larkyns. Muybridge journeyed to the man’s house, and announced: “I have brought a message from my wife, take it,” promptly shooting him. He was cleared of murder on the grounds of “justified homicide”.

Muybridge’s photographs show a less rough and ready sensibility. Although in almost all of his work his aim was partly scientific — the recording of geography or urban development or motion — he had an artist’s eye. His images of the American landscape are steeped in the painterly tradition. Here he is a Hudson River School photographer with an admixture of Claude and Turner — all framing foregrounds, detailed middle distances and steepling, misty horizons. An image such as Contemplation Rock of 1872, in which he photographed himself sitting untethered on the edge of a terrifying overhang in Yosemite staring into the abyss beneath, is a pure exercise in the sublime (indeed this photograph was used in his murder trial as evidence of his mental instability). His images of lighthouses, meanwhile, rarely show the structures themselves in the centre of the frame; they are shot from odd angles with the sea a spectral, misty presence and they resemble nothing so much as the pantheistic existentialism of Caspar David Friedrich. 

While these pictures reveal Muybridge as a late-Romantic figure, his animal studies and spectacular multi-plate panoramas of San Francisco reveal a proto-Modernist, infatuated with science and the rapidly changing world. Even here, his aesthetic is apparent; each individual frame of, say, a greyhound running or an athlete somersaulting has an independent beauty. Devoid of narrative, displaying a concern more for formal concepts and design, they share many of the traits of the art of the second half of the following century — except they are more beautiful than much of it.

Muybridge died in 1904, four years after the portraitist Alice Neel was born. Neel herself died in 1984 after a life as eventful as Muybridge’s and so forms a bridge between his world and our own. 

Never one of the most lauded American artists, she was nevertheless a significant figure who worked quietly as Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art and Minimalism eddied around her. Rarely seen in this country, some 60 paintings from her long career are currently on show in Alice Neel: Painted Truths at the Whitechapel Gallery (until September 17). 

In the 1950s, an FBI investigation labelled her a “romantic bohemian-type communist” but her subjects fit no one class or political persuasion. They encompass lovers and strangers, rich and poor, union men and museum men, those she liked and those she clearly didn’t, and above all family and friends. 

In pictures of bright colour, she concentrates solely on the figure, often leaving backgrounds barely realised as a statement that her interest is solely in her sitter or, since she liked to paint twins, sitters.

Hers are odd portraits. There is no great refinement of technique and her colouring and drawing are frequently clumsy. They are, though, beguiling because they have a certain home-spun mundanity; these are pictures about personality and not status or self-image. There is nothing mundane about the strength of Neel’s gaze, nor her willingness to wait until her sitters dropped any pretence and revealed in their faces “what the world had done to them”. 

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