It began as a rich man’s bet. In 1872, Leland Stanford wanted the question definitively answered: do all four of a galloping horse’s hooves lift off the ground at the same time? Standford sought out the British-born, San Francisco-based photographer Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904). Muybridge's experiments, interrupted by a brief trial for murder, finally settled the question in 1877. Muybridge managed to do something that no other photographer had done before - recording evidence of actual motion - by rethinking the apparatus of photography. For the first time, there was visual evidence of something the human eye couldn't register on its own: a horse’s full range of movements, including a galloping horse's hooves leaving the ground. Muybridge had made the subject of photography into a verb, and ushered in a new kind of photography, one which captured the invisible and showed us what we cannot see with the naked eye.
Muybridge’s photography was a radical investigation into both the limits of the medium, and the limitations of human vision. “Eadweard Muybridge”, currently at the Tate Britain, uses photographs from the entirety of Muybridge’s career and places his works within the context of his experiments: from his early stereoscopic photographs of the American West, to locomotion studies of horses and other mammals, to his invention of the zoopraxiscope (a precursor of film, the zoopraxiscope is considered the first movie projector) and finally his panorama of San Francisco. The exhibition highlights Muybridge’s remarkable importance to later artists who were invested in the dissection of locomotion – from the Italian Futurists to Marcel Duchamp and Francis Bacon.
The Tate Britain’s exhibition, like the Corcoran’s earlier this year, is an important reclaiming of Muybridge’s central place in the canon of artistic modernity. As is the case with claiming “scientific photography” as the sole province of art and art history, there is a tendency to overlook the incredible role that Muybridge played in the histories of naturalism, perception, and vision. Like most photographers of the time, he was frustrated by the constraints of long exposure photography, which edited out movement. He experimented with composition printing, a method in which one positive is made from multiple negatives, inserting clouds into landscapes to make the scene appear more natural. Muybridge also understood the technological capacity of photography. Like many 19th century photographers, he understood that a photograph was by no means realistic or natural. Rather, he saw it as a machine enhancement of human vision. This ideology is what drove his experiments for Stanford, as well as later experiments he conducted at the University of Pennsylvania.
Muybridge understood photography’s specific role in what the University of Chicago's Joel Snyder has called “Picturing the Invisible” – showing us what we do not or cannot see (rapid motion, the behavior of matter, the ordinary and everyday). Photography of this sort might be better understood as a device for translating the unseen or unseeable into something that looks like a picture of something we could never see. When Muybridge captured a horse in motion, he was using high-speed film at exposures as fast as 1/2000th of a second – faster, of course, than the speed at which human beings stop being able to consciously differentiate visual stimuli.
Pointing out Muybridge’s photography of the invisible might seem a rather pedestrian. But Snyder (riffing off Walter Benjamin) argues that "If photographs are about ‘the real world’… then in what sense is a picture that shows us something unseeable still to be thought of as about ‘the visible world’? We are left in the unusual predicament of maintaining at one and the same time photographs show us facts about ‘the visible world’ that have no counterparts in our world outside…of photographs. Thus, photography challenges our traditional notions of what constitutes our world, our reality."
Muybridge didn’t just take pictures of horses. His photographs opened up a realm of photographic possibility that forever changed our modern perceptions of the real. We understand our world photographically – it's our visual point of departure when we define "real" or "natural". The technological witness trumps physical witnessing. This is certainly evident not only in documentary photographs that define our understanding of foreign cultures. It extends to photographs of the planets, weather patterns, x-rays, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), among other things. We know what Earth looks like not because we’ve see it, but because we’ve seen photographs of it.
We take these terms for granted; photography has a way of quickly rewriting the flexible definition of naturalism. Perhaps in reviving Muybridge’s reputation, Tate Britain’s exhibition can also restore an awareness of photography’s central role in our perceptions of reality. Muybridge’s studies of mammal locomotion are part and parcel of our visual history of naturalism — of reality — a history which should grant the importance of the technological apparatus.
When Muybridge debuted his zoopraxisope in London, he projected the now iconic galloping horse. The Photographic News heralded his work and exclaimed “A new world of sights and wonders was, indeed, opened by photography, which was not less astounding because it was truth itself.” Muybridge opened the door, and photographic "truth itself" still floods our comprehension of our world.