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Matinee: 'The Weird World of Eadweard Muybridge' Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

31 January 2015

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the seventieth in our series of Saturday matinees today: The Weird World of Eadweard Muybridge.

Nearly an hour in length, this entertaining documentary engaged us immediately with its attention to detail. Take that name "Eadwaerd," for example. The superfluous "a" followed by a superfluous "e" -- where did that come from? These guys tell us. Actually, they show us.

And that's quite fitting, given the subject.

Much as Muybridge is known as a photographer, his story is a fabulous illustration of both the fragility of the brain and the strength of the mind:

  • He only studied photography after suffering a severe head injury.
  • And he nevertheless pioneered moving pictures despite a traumatic stress injury. That was his wife Flora's infidelity that led to his murdering of her lover -- and his eventual acquittal.

Story aside, he is famous for a couple of photographic feats as well.

The less well known project (seen at the 16-minute mark of the film) we wrote about in 2000:

If you never want to forget how aperture priority works, you have nothing more to do than remember that the noted photographer Eadweard Muybridge made a very famous panorama of San Francisco one bright day in 1878 from the middle of the city with one disturbing feature obvious to even the casual observer. Despite the beautiful weather, it showed hardly anyone at all on the street. Anywhere in the city.

This miracle of timing occurred merely because Muybridge used such a long exposure than nobody actually in motion was still long enough to register on the film. Six second exposures, in fact.

That's the trouble with aperture priority. Moving subjects blur. And sometimes entirely disappear.

Not only will you not forget how aperture priority works but you'll also remember how shutter speed functions, we might have said.

Muybridge's more well-known photographic feat, perhaps, involves a bet. Does a trotting horse ever have all four hooves off the ground?

To find out, Muybridge rigged a series of up to 24 glass-plate cameras with trip wires down a straight-away. As the horse ran down the track, its chest would trip each camera in turn, recording the position of its hooves. On a shutter that he had designed (with some help from Leland Stanford's Central Pacific Railroad engineers) to stop motion at 1/500 second.

That should help you remember how shutter speed works, too.

Those hooves? They do indeed fly over the ground all at once. The stills proved it but he brought them to life to convince the doubters with moving pictures displayed on his Zoopraxiscope, which projected them on a large screen. The IMAX of its day.

He had photographed a verb instead of a noun, as one person in the film puts it. He had photographed trotting, not a horse.

Or was it really that simple? The film explores the issue a bit deeper, following him to the University of Pennsylvania after his embarrassment in London when Stanford, who had financed the project, published Muybridge's work on motion without crediting him.

By the time the film ends, you will be forgiven for wondering if Muybridge was an entertainer, a fraud, a murderer, a showman, a scientist, an inventor, a genius, a marketeer.

But you will not doubt he was a photographer.

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