Eadweard Muybridge at Tate Britain

When is the word visionary not a cliché? When it is applied to Eadweard Muybridge, whose “instantaneous” photography envisaged things the human eye is anatomically incapable of catching: most famously, all four hooves of a horse off the ground at once when the animal was in full gallop. So horses fly and Pegasus was just an exaggeration.

Before the “Motion Studies” that are the drawing card of Tate Britain’s powerful but austere exhibition, 19th-century photography had been painterly. Its subjects were those that painting had ordained: portraits, landscapes and buildings. But with his studies in animal locomotion, Muybridge irreversibly altered the expectations of what the camera could do. The magnitude of the transformation was not so much a shift from the picturesque to the scientific, however much he mantled himself in the authority of an anatomist. It was rather a change from photography conditional on the inert (stillness commanded from the human subjects) to an unimaginably fast shutter operation that could first record and then, through a sequence of shots, reanimate motion; the horse – or the pig or the mule trotting or the naked Muybridge himself swinging a pickaxe. That stop-motion, as Hollywood every so often rediscovers, never goes out of style.

So if you want to know how “motion studies” begat moving pictures begat the movies – a peculiarly Californian story – go to the Tate Britain show, even though the array of wonders is installed with the kind of curatorial teeth-clench that demands reverence for the Art above any atmospheric rendering of the rackety world of the Gilded Age. Would it have killed off aesthetic integrity to have had a bit of California honky-tonk in the glorious room featuring Muybridge’s 360 degree panorama of San Francisco? In an exhibition about the birth of the moving image there are exactly two items that move: a comprehensive slideshow of every plate from Animal Locomotion and a cheerful display of Muybridge’s “zoopraxical” projections.

Pictures were not all that Muybridge shot. At the 1875 trial for murdering his wife’s lover, his attorney offered the insanity defence. Years before, the accused had suffered a stagecoach accident, which resulted in double vision (cue up the stereoscopy in which his scenic views specialised), and surely it was lunacy to pose on the edge of a precipice in the high Sierras? The jury wasn’t having it. Muybridge was acquitted but on the grounds that killing the wife’s fancy man at point blank range was what was expected of any red-blooded husband. Yet although the insanity plea didn’t work, there was something slightly crazy about the man – even if only crazy like a fox.

That Anglo-Saxon moniker, Eadweard, for instance, was only assumed to give himself an aura of ancient mystery in the New World West. Born plain Edward Muggeridge in Kingston upon Thames, son to a coal and grain merchant, he emigrated (still Muggeridge) to San Francisco in 1855 where he opened a bookstore. The city still had the gold-bug, sprawling over its seismically trembly hills; a mecca for hucksters, gangsters, plutocrats such as the great railroad millionaire Leland Stanford, and delusionals. If a Jewish eccentric such as Joshua Norton could style himself “Emperor of the United States” and issue regular decrees abolishing Congress, why shouldn’t a nomadic bookseller-cum-photographer give himself the name of a warty churl from the pages of Walter Scott?

The bookstore failed. Muybridge returned to England but was back again in San Francisco in 1867, recast as photographer. The republic was still bloodily divided by the trauma of civil war but the continent itself was about to be united by the railroad. The Central Pacific line drove east over the Sierra Nevada from California while the Union Pacific advanced in the opposite direction. The two lines met on Promontory Summit, Utah, on May 10 1869, where Muybridge’s impending patron, Leland Stanford, drove in the spike, custom-forged from gold in San Francisco and inscribed, “May God continue the unity of this country as this railroad united the two oceans of the world.” The West, pictures of which were already all over the country, would heal what North versus South had torn asunder, and never mind about the Indians.

But Eadweard did mind. Traipsing in the footsteps of pioneering photographers of Yosemite such as Carleton Watkins, Muybridge’s images manage somehow both to enchant and disenchant at the same time. The common theme was tragic rather than inspirational. He introduced darkling clouds that weren’t there by superimposing pictures on a separate landscape plate and more daringly brought the actual inhabitants of the valley – Miwoks – into a scene that in other hands pretended to be an unpopulated paradise. The photographs are powerful because they emit a kind of broody dissatisfaction with enthralment of wilderness, and this makes them ultimately stronger than both Watkins and, later, Ansel Adams.

The refusal of empty panegyric doesn’t make Muybridge a radical; rather a shifty dissenter. He worked for the US Army, its first official war photographer, while it was busy exterminating inconvenient tribes, but made sure to register the presence of the beleaguered Modocs and make the brutal landscape of the Lava Beds an emblem of their obstinate redoubt. But when the Gilded Scum such as Stanford extended the hand of patronage, Muybridge gratefully grabbed it, doing a photo drool over the cavernous mansion but also using his spring-loaded shutter to catch Stanford’s trotting horse Occident with his hooves up.

The railroad man was so delighted that he turned over a corner of his estate at Palo Alto into a “motion studies” open air lab for Muybridge. A wonderful photo shows a track, wall limewashed to maximise light, the shed that housed up to a dozen equally spaced cameras, and, set into the track, the tripwires over which the horses gallop to trigger the exposures. It was and is a stunning achievement and it was made possible by a peculiarly Californian marriage of can-do capital and must-do kinetics.

Muybridge was not alone. The Palo Alto experiments were enacted partly to see if Etienne-Jules Marey (who had photo-recorded motion by motion the movement of insects and the flight of birds) was right about La Machine Animale.

But the big issue was what to do with this exhilarating break-through in animation. Was it science, art or (perish the thought) entertainment? Truth to tell, Muybridge had all of those in him. He lectured to the Royal Institution with his zoopraxiscope as a scientist but suggested to Thomas Edison the potential of combining moving images with the phonograph, a notion so wild that Edison ignored it. The sequences Muybridge made in Philadelphia towards the end of his life with their athletic nudes wrestling and boxing pretend to a modern classicism but often collapse into soft porn. A half-naked actress comes over all cute as a little girl runs to her with a nosegay. Another sequence of ooh la la has a nude lighting up a cigarette and laying back for her gasper. “This was not strictly necessary for Muybridge’s science,” I heard a curatorial voice say as he passed loftily by. No indeed.

Truth to tell, Muybridge was no storyteller. It would be left to others such as Georges Méliès, the Lumière brothers and the young DW Griffith to capitalise on the narrative power of motion pictures. But what he had accomplished – the transformation of photography from still to animated life – was big enough. Like his horses, that vision would run and run.

‘Eadweard Muybridge’ runs at Tate Britain until January 16 2011; www.tate.org.uk

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