This post is my contribution to Page's Horsethon, at My Love of Old Hollywood. Check out the rest of the entries here.
Horses are a fitting subject for a blogathon, because it is the movements of this animal that bridged the gap between still photographs and the movies. This is thanks to the work of the innovative photographer Eadweard Muybridge.
Though Muybridge would likely have been famous as a photographer even if he had never attempted to catch a horse in motion, he would probably not be well remembered today. Since he did, the idea of moving pictures began to develop into the movies we know today with his discoveries, and his name is a familiar part of cinema history.
Muybridge's photographs of horses in motion are so famous, that people who care nothing about photography or old movies are familiar with them:
The images were even the subject of a Google doodle earlier this year:
Eadweard Muybridge was born in England, but he spent most of his life in the United States, and particularly California. He immigrated to San Francisco in 1855, when gold fever was still wild in the west, and eventually established himself as a bookseller.
|Muybridge Self-Portrait with Enormous Tree|
Seven years would pass before Muybridge was fully rehabilitated and could return to San Francisco. While in recovery, he changed his vocation to photography. By the time he returned home in 1867, he knew his trade well. He quickly made his name as a photographer of landscapes, and most notably Yosemite Valley. Muybridge also traveled to find interesting subject matter, such as the Tlingit people in Alaska.
This is where the horse part comes in.
In 1872, former California governor, railroad baron and race horse owner Leland Stanford hired Muybridge to answer a question. He wanted to know if a trotting horse ever had all four feet off the ground, and he was rich enough to find out.
Muybridge set up his camera at Stanford's farm in Palo Alto, and he captured proof on a single negative that is now lost. Yep, that horse was airborne.
While the initial study excited Standford, the most famous of Muybridge's horse images (and the ones you see pictured above)would not be taken for several years.
There was a bit of scandal in the eccentric photographer's life.
Muybridge had married Flora Shallcross Stone, a much younger woman, in 1872. They had a child, Florado Helios Muybridge, in 1874. Several months later, Muybridge became convinced that the baby was the son of Major Harry Larkyns, a drama critic.
Once free, Muybridge left for South America to take a previously-planned photography trip. When he returned several months later, Flora had died.
Muybrdige never had much more to do with his son, though photographs have shown that the boy did resemble him. Florado worked on a ranch for most of his life, and was hit and killed by a car at age seventy.
Back to the horses.
Stanford hired Muybridge again in 1878 to make a more detailed study of horse movement. New technology had greatly improved the quality of the photographs and thus a sharper, more detailed image could provide more insight into the animal's motions.
Muybridge set up 24 cameras on the racetrack. Frustrated by his inability to take images of the horse quickly enough by hand, he set up a system of electrical wires on the racetrack. These would be triggered by the horse when it ran across them, thus setting off the shutter of the camera. Muybridge also hung bright white sheets across the race track so that the contrast between horse and background would be greater.
The resulting images created a sensation. They were the subject of local newspapers and scientific journals. No one had ever explored the possibilities of motion in photographs to this extent.
Muybridge created a projection device called a zoopraxiscope. He would use this machine to show the images in motion by copying them in silhouette form onto a disc. By quickly rotating the images, the images appeared to move. This is the view from the top of the device:
Here's a close-up of the images:
This new method of projection set several imaginations on fire, one of the most significant being motion picture pioneer Thomas Edison.
Though Muybridge had a falling out with Stanford over the rights to his horse images, he would continue making motion studies at the University of Pennsylvania, where he took over 100,000 images. In addition to horses, Muybridge studied other animals and even people. His subjects included cows, goats, dogs and boars.
He also captured the movements of one of the last surviving bison:
Muybridge was particularly interested in the movements of athletes and captured them wrestling, jumping, tumbling, fencing and boxing. Many of his human subjects were filmed nude so that every nuance of their motion could be studied in detail. He even made a few studies of himself in the all-together:
In 1887, Muybridge published a portfolio with thousands of his images. Their influence was so powerful that it and a couple of books to follow continue to be used by individuals in science, athletics and the arts today.
Later in life, Muybridge traveled the world, giving lectures and demonstrations. During the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, he projected his moving pictures in the Zoopraxographical Hall. This would make his exhibit essentially the first commercial movie theater.
After a long life of accomplishment, Muybridge returned to England in 1894, where he lived until his death in 1904. He would have held a small corner of photography history without Stanford and his horses, but who knows when the movies would have come along if he hadn't trained those cameras on Occident?