Edward Muybridge

Muybridge was eccentric and brilliant.

British born Edward James Muggeridge changed his name many times over the course of his lifetime and was truly an odd duck by anybody’s standards with a Walt Whitman beard, an eccentric personality and a temper.

He was born at Kingston-on-Thames, England on April 9, 1830. After moving to the USA in 1855, he worked as a publisher’s agent and bookseller and then changed his first name to Eduardo Santiago, perhaps because of the Spanish influence on Californian place names.

Over the course of his life, his surname appears at times as Muggridge and Muygridge (possibly due to misspellings), and Muybridge from the 1860s. In the 1870s, he changed his first name again to Eadweard and remained as this till his death, however, his gravestone bears a further variant, Eadweard Maybridge.

In the late 1850s, he returned to England following a stagecoach accident where he sustained head injuries. While recuperating back in England, he took up photography seriously and upon returning to the USA, he began to gain a reputation for his landscape photos.

However, we as horse lovers and lovers of horse art owe him thanks for his findings that finally put to rest the age-old question and debate of his era: are all four legs of a horse ever off the ground at the same time?

The Steeplechase

Artists of the time drew and painted horses in the rocking horse style

Old hunting prints from artists of that time see a horse literally bounding across field and stream with its fore legs out in front and the hind legs out behind like a rabbit. If indeed a horse did gallop this way – known as the rocking horse effect – it would have been virtually impossible to ride or drive

In 1872, former Governor of California, Leland Stanford, a businessman and racehorse owner sought out Muybridge to settle the exact same question.

Muybridge worked for years to find an answer and finally decided to use a series of large cameras that used glass plates placed in a line, with a thread that triggered the camera as the horse passed by. The images were copied in the form of silhouettes onto a disc and viewed in a machine called a Zoopraxiscope.

Sallie Gardner at a gallop

Sallie Gardner at a gallop. Click on photo to see his animated film.

Muybridge had successfully photographed a horse in fast motion proving that all four legs do all leave the ground although not with the legs fully extended forward and back, as contemporary illustrators tended to imagine. This result became an intermediate stage towards motion pictures or cinematography.

In 1874, to add to his already bizarre reputation, Muybridge killed his wife’s lover Major Harry Larkyns and went on trial. His plea of insanity due to his head injuries fell on deaf ears, but the jury acquitted him for justifiable homicide. He then had his son put in an orphanage because he did not think he was his own, but as the child grew he took on many of Muybridge’s features and Muybridge often used his son’s middle name Helios on his photographs.

His Achievements
1. At the University of Pennsylvania and the local zoo, Muybridge used banks of cameras to photograph people and animals to study their movement. Between 1883 and 1886, he made 100,000 images and they were published as 781 plates comprising 20,000 of the photographs in a collection called Animal Locomotion. Muybridge’s work stands near the beginning of the science of biomechanics and the mechanics of athletics.

2. In 1878, Scientific American published Muybridge’s results and they became know to the public. Muybridge’s work had a profound influence on equine art as the artist could now study detail that the human eye could not see. Artists such as Degas, Eakins and Remington readily accepted these findings however, the famous Rodin had to go through a period of “furious denial” before abandoning the “rocking horse” style.

3. At the Chicago 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, Muybridge gave a series of lectures on the Science of Animal Locomotion in the Zoopraxographical Hall. He used his zoopraxiscope to show his moving pictures to a paying public, making the Hall the very first commercial movie theater.

4. Like the artist George Stubbs,  Muybridge’s material was used to draw anatomically correct drawings for the veterinary world and in doing so his work introduced art to the world of scientific data.

5. Muybridge’s work with Stanford also attracted the attention of the famous inventor Thomas Edison and, George Eastman who was working on the development of film, which finally set the stage for motion pictures.

Eadward Muybridge returned to his native England for good in 1894, published two further popular books of his work, and died on May 8, 1904, in Kingston upon Thames. The house has a British Film Institute commemorative plaque on the outside wall that was unveiled in 2004.

His Legacy
Muybridge’s larger than life personality and work has influenced and been featured or mentioned by artists, playwrights, inventors, photographers, singers and movie producers like John Gaeta, who used the principles of Muybridge’s photography to create the bullet time slow-motion technique of the 1999 movie The Matrix .

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