Muybridge Captured a World of Rapid Changes

Posted April 13, 2010 at 6:08pm

The first thing viewers see as they enter the magical new Eadweard Muybridge exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art is a film showing an endless loop of moving images: boxers pummeling each other, men running, horses galloping, cows loping, pigs strolling, each shown for a few seconds before the shot moves on to the next set of images.

It’s a window into a living, moving 19th century, shot years before moving pictures seemed possible, and the accomplishment for which Muybridge is probably best known.

But Muybridge, who worked from about 1857 to 1893, was also a photographic pioneer, recording panoramic views of San Francisco, Yosemite landscapes and a crumbling South America. The new Corcoran exhibit, “Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change,” brings together more than 300 of his works in the first comprehensive retrospective of the man’s art.

Muybridge (who used the artistic name Helios, the Greek sun god) was more than an experimenter in photography, Corcoran President Paul Greenhalgh said. He was also “an extraordinary visual poet.” That poetry is on display in the exhibit, which traces Muybridge’s growth as a meticulous landscape photographer to a chronicler of a booming San Francisco and the pioneering construction of railroads in the Alaska Territory.

Muybridge photographed the world in a time of rapid industrialization. The growth of railroads and factories meant that the “nature of the landscape itself took on new meaning,” curator Philip Brookman said. Muybridge “changed how we see and relate to the world.”

Today’s viewers, of course, will have a hard time judging just how groundbreaking the Muybridge photography was at the time, but that doesn’t detract from the pleasure of gazing at San Francisco’s streets in 1877, or from the feeling of seeing a landscape from an unsettling vantage point. Of a photograph of a crest of a Yosemite waterfall in 1867, the curators write: “As in Frederic Church’s 1867 painting Niagara, Muybridge has given the viewer no place to stand in the scene, and peering down over the dramatic edge yields a bird’s-eye view of the thousand-foot drop.”

Muybridge often took on commissions that made him the official documentarian of work in the Alaska Territory, California lighthouses or the Modoc War between Native Americans and the United States Army in 1872-1873.

Another of his commissions brought him his greatest fame. He worked for industrialist Leland Stanford, the wealthy Californian (and founder of Stanford University) who wanted to know whether all four horses’ hooves left the ground when they ran (they do) and why some horses ran faster than others. So Muybridge set up as many as 24 cameras that would shoot a running horse in a seconds-apart sequence, and then display the series of photos on a zoopraxiscope, a kind of early slide projector with a spinning glass disk that made the still images come alive. What resulted was a mesmerizing study of human and animal locomotion, and the inspiration for generations of filmmakers.

Another section of the exhibit continues with a second fascinating display of moving pictures. Muybridge eventually produced 781 plates created from about 20,000 individual images, including a series showing a near-naked man doing a handspring, a woman in a gauzy dress twirling in a circle, a maid tossing a bucket of water and a Noah’s ark of creatures moving from one point to another.

Muybridge’s San Francisco panorama is another milestone in photographic history. In his first foray into panoramic photography, Muybridge set up a circle of 11 exposures over the course of about five hours to capture the entire city of 1877. He did the same in 1878, and his portrait of a bustling city and active harbor remains a poignant documentation of the city before it was devastated in the 1906 earthquake.

Some of Muybridge’s groundbreaking work came about because he was fleeing his own tragedy. Married to a young woman named Flora Downs, Muybridge discovered a photograph of the couple’s son. Written on the back were the words “Little Harry,” the name of a man that Downs had been spending much time with.

In a rage, Muybridge shot to death Harry Larkyns, his wife’s supposed lover. The jury in his murder trial sympathized with Muybridge and acquitted him. Nevertheless, Muybridge decided it might be a good time to head south of the border. Calling himself Eduardo Santiago Muybridge, he set off for Panama and Guatemala and produced some of the most haunting images in the show, showing a world of church ruins and bridges in the shadows under brooding skies.

Running at the same time as the Muybridge exhibit is a multimedia installation, “American Falls: Phil Solomon,” which uses digital projections to make visitors feel as if they’re surrounded by the sights and sounds of water inside the Corcoran’s rotunda. The work is inspired by Hudson River School painter Frederic Church’s painting, “Niagara,” and D.C.’s war memorials.

Both exhibits will run through July 18.