Look what Grandma Snail picked up for me at the Getty Museum!
Eadweard Muybridge’s 1887 photograph series “Man taking off his hat” layered into one holographic postcard! Here’s the series frame by frame:The fascinating life of Eadweard Muybridge, the godfather of cinematography, began in the south of London (Kingston upon Thames) in 1830. In his early twenties, he moved to San Francisco as an agent for the London Printing and Publishing Company, and also set up a bookshop. In 1860, he planned to return to London to buy more antiquarian books for the shop. But he missed his boat. So he set out across the country intending to take a ship from New York. The first stretch of this journey was by stagecoach to Saint Louis. Somewhere in central Texas, the stagecoach crashed, injuring every passenger and killing one. Muybridge was lucky not to be that one. He was thrown from the vehicle and hit his head on a rock. He was treated 150 miles away in Fort Smith, Akansas, where he stayed for three months recovering from double vision and other sensory confusion. Muybridge then made it to New York City by railway, where he spent another year recovering. Then he finally set sail for London. Muybridge continued treatment in London for several years, when he also took up photography. In 1866, he returned to San Francisco a photographer.
A self-portrait from Muybridge’s studio
And yet this is not how he would be remembered, because a field all his own awaited. The year of the photograph of above, former California governor Leland Stanford, a proud racehorse owner, hired Muybridge to settle a great debate of the day–When a horse trots, do all four hooves leave the ground at once? What about in a gallop? Muybridge photographed one of Stanford’s racehorses in a trot, discovering that the horse did indeed completely leave the ground.
Muybridge followed with more horse studies, but this was interrupted by a murder trial. The photographer’s personality had been altered for the worse by the stagecoach accident, making him alternately indifferent or explosive, and generally unreasonable. In 1874, he found a letter to his wife Flora from a drama critic named Major Harry Larkyns, which made Muybridge suspect his seven-month old baby was actually Larkyns’ son. Muybridge tracked Larkyns down in Napa County, saying he was there to reply to the letter and shooting him point-blank. Larkyns died that night. Stanford arranged for Muybridge’s criminal defense, but the murderer undermined all efforts at a plea of insanity. Still, the jury disregarded the judge’s instructions, pronouncing it justifiable homicide, which gives a strong sense of how this was still the Wild West. Philip Glass composed an opera The Photographer about the case, using court transcripts to write it!
Larkyns was indeed Flora’s lover, but, from a contemporary view of the restrictions upon women at the time, it’s hard to blame her. Flora was already a widow when she went into her second marriage to Muybridge in 1872. She was 21, and he was 42, frequently off on photographic expeditions, and an exceedingly difficult personality when he was home. After Mulbridge was acquitted of Larkyns’ murder, Flora attempted to file for divorce. It took a second try while the photographer was away on an expedition to Central America in 1875. Flora died of typhoid months later. She was 24.
(Photograph from The Fate of Flora Muybridge)
Although Flora had placed her son with a French couple, he wound up in a Catholic orphanage. When Muybridge returned from his expedition, he transferred the boy to a Protestant orphanage, supporting him financially but otherwise having little to do with him. But as he grew, he came to look like Muybridge.
Muybridge went back to his studies for Stanford. The gallop proved more difficult to capture. In 1878, Muybridge set up large glass-plate cameras along the track at Standford’s Palo Alto farm (now Stanford University). He threaded the shutters so he could pull them open in turn just as the horse, Sallie Gardner, galloped past. And for the clearest shots, he chose a silhouette method, rigging sheets around the track. Once again, it turned out that all four hooves left the ground.
The 1880’s proved to be the peak of career. At this time, Muybridge produced over 100,000 images, invented numerous motion capturing and projecting instruments and processes, and published his two great books Animal Locomotion and The Human Figure in Motion. Muybridge then toured Europe, giving demonstrations and lectures up to his death in 1904.
Years ago, when Grandpa Snail turned 70, he and Grandma Snail decided to mark the occasion with a trip to London and Paris with my cousins and me. The day we visited the Louvre, the museum guards were on strike. Without anyone to tell them not to, people were taking pictures of all the art. I admit, I snapped a few very blurry ones of the Mona Lisa.