Ambarin Afsar tries to freeze the fast-paced, almost maddening life of Eadweard Muybridge, also known as the man who froze time.
This story begins, like most interesting stories do, with a murder. Eadweard James Muybridge was at the height of his career, when his experiments were interrupted. In 1874, Muybridge walked up to his young wife’s friend, Harry Larkyns, whom he suspected of having fathered his son, and said, “My name is Muybridge, and I have a message for you from my wife.” Before Larkyns could react, Muybridge shot him through the heart. In 1875, he was tried for murder, and was acquitted on the grounds of justifiable homicide.
The Making of an Eccentric Man
This murder is somehow central to Muybridge’s persona, and exhibits his volatile temperament, which may have been due a stagecoach accident that fractured his skull in 1860. The frontal lobe injury, psychologists reckon, left the intellect intact, but damaged emotional control as well as freed his creativity from social inhibitions. Interestingly, it was after this injury that Muybridge returned to Britain for treatment, and also began learning photography. Coming back to the acquittal— Muybridge spent a year in self-imposed exile during which he worked in Central America. Finally, in 1877, he resumed the famed motion studies at a racetrack, with admirable breakthroughs. It was almost as if each time a severe personal injury helped propel him forward.
The Seed of High Speed Photography
The former Governor of California, Leland Stanford, was passionate about horses. So much so that he took a stand in the popular debate of those days—whether all four legs of a horse come off the ground at any point in a trot or gallop. He insisted that they did, and was looking for proof. Most people insist that he had placed quite a large wager on the outcome, but Stanford was really looking to breed and train the fastest horses in the world. And so, in 1872, he turned to Muybridge, who had made a reputation with his stereographs of Native Americans and dramatic landscapes.
Many Layered Origins
Muybridge was born Edward Muggeridge in London in 1830. Before emigrating to America in the early 1850s, Edward became Eadweard and went on to be a bookseller in New York and San Francisco.
In 1867, when he came back to America recovered from his injury and reinvented as a photographer, he also changed his last name to Muybridge. While making the landscape and architectural photos that he was famed for, he converted a light carriage into a portable darkroom. He took great physical risks, all the while using heavy view cameras and glass plates. In fact, one stereograph shows him sitting casually on a rock jutting out over the Yosemite Valley with a drop of nearly 2000 feet.
The First Rebuff
When Stanford approached him, Muybridge said that the task was impossible. To capture the movement of a horse running at 40 feet per second, one could certainly not take 15 seconds to 1 minute. Stanford finally convinced him to attempt photos that took a fraction of a second.
Astounding Success and Criticism
In 1872, Muybridge gathered all the sheets from the neighbourhood of the stables to make a white ground. The horse, Occident, was trained to run over the white cloth. On the first day, closing and opening the camera gave no result. On the second day, trying the same really fast, only helped in capturing a shadow. On the third day, Muybridge tried to make two boards slip past each other, touched by a spring. This led to an eighth of an inch opening for the five hundredth part of a second. The horse passed, and was frozen. But, critics said that it was a woodcut of a photo of a painting of the
A Grand Attempt
In 1877, Muybridge resumed experimenting after the murder, and Stanford continued funding him. He bought 12 cameras developed more sensitive emulsion. Finally, in 1878, he lined up the cameras for a spectacular show. A sloping white backdrop had been put up opposite the cameras, and across the horse’s path were 12 wires, each connected to a different camera. The horse was to speed down the path pulling a two-wheeled cart, and as soon as the wheel rolled over a wire, it completed an electrical circuit, tripping that particular camera. The 12 shots were managed in less than half a second, and within 20 minutes, Muybridge developed the plates for visitors to admire.
Making the First ‘Movies’
Within a year, Muybridge also produced the first machine to project moving photographic images. Based on a children’s toy called the zoetrope, this device reanimated the trotting sequences and adapted them onto the screen. The film in his new machine, which he called the zoopraxiscope, was a large glass disk about the size of a dinner plate, with figures running around the edge.
Film historians consider the zoopraxiscope a forerunner to the movie projector. But when the movies finally arrived in the 1890s, they eclipsed his work, and he returned to England one last time. Eadweard Muybridge died in 1904 in his own backyard, and ironically enough, engraved on his headstone was the name, Eadweard Maybridge.
“The pictures laid bare all the mistakes that artists had made in their renderings of the various postures of the horse.” —Paul Valéry, French critic and poet
“A mischievous boy, always doing or saying something unusual, or inventing a new toy, or a fresh trick.” —Muybridge’s cousin, in her memoirs.
Tags: 1800's, Ambarin Afsar, Eadweard Muybridge, Great Masters, November 2013
“Nothing was wanting but the clatter of hoofs upon the turf and the occasional breath of steam to make the spectator believe he had before him the flesh and blood steeds.” —A newspaper reporter on the zoopraxiscope.