Eadweard Muybridge: The photographic pioneer who froze time and nature

by Roger Cicala

posted Tuesday, November 27, 2012 at 8:34 PM EDT

“I am going to make a name for myself. If I fail, you will never hear of me again.” -- Edward Muggeridge

I love writing about great photographers. I’m sure there are some exceptions, but in general they tend to be among the oddest and most interesting groups of people on the planet. I thought the photographer who did post-processing in the 1860s was amazing. I was totally entertained by the life of the hard-drinking New Zealander who took the first telephoto photographs. Not to mention the half-dozen figures that dominated the early days of camera development.

But I’ve never found one that, more than today’s subject, met my double criteria of being both a landmark in photography, and a totally bizarre human being.

He had successful careers as a bookseller, landscape photographer, travel photographer, academic and scientific photographer, and he also patented numerous inventions. His early work in Yosemite and the American West became one of Ansel Adams' inspirations. His later work revolutionized the way things were painted and sculpted. He is considered both the first scientific photographer and the first cinematographer. (That's important to me, because I enjoy tormenting the video techs with frequent lectures about cinematography being a minor branch of photography.)

In Britain, plaques at the Royal Photographic Society, the British Film Institute, and the Kingston Museum honor him. He was honored as one of the four ‘pioneers of communication’ by the U.S. Postal Service, and by exhibits at the Smithsonian Institute. He is also remembered with plaques and statues at Stanford University, a fact of which he would certainly hate to know.

He was the subject of two plays, numerous biographies, two motion pictures, and even an opera. Director Mark Neal filmed U2′s music video “Lemon” as a tribute to his work. He's also one of only two photographers that I’m aware of to have a day as a “Google Doodle”, and to be the subject of a historical novel (the other was Phillipe Halsman).

In April 2012, Eadweard Muybridge's birthday was commemorated by the daily Google Doodle.

His work certainly deserved all of the accolades, but, as we say in the South, he “weren’t quite right.”  He murdered his wife’s lover in front of witnesses and was quite surprised that people didn’t understand it was the right thing to do. He sued arguably the richest man in the world multiple times, and later claimed Thomas Edison stole his ideas. He took a college professorship to photograph moving animals and then decided since humans were animals he should take photographs of undressed ladies moving around. According to legend, he died naked while digging a scale model of the Great Lakes in his back yard.

In other words, he was the perfect subject for one of my blog posts. But I should warn you: this one is a bit of a long read.

“The man is insane. A genius, but completely insane.” -- Thomas Edison discussing Eadweard Muybridge in the historical novel Freezing Time: The Autobiography of Eadweard Muybridge.
“I would hesitate to call him a thief but that will do until I can think of a more apt description.” -- Eadweard Muybridge regarding Thomas Edison in the historical novel Freezing Time: The Autobiography of Eadweard Muybridge.

Edward Muggeridge
Born Edward James Muggeridge in Kingston upon Thames, England in 1830, the man who would one day call himself Eadweard Muybridge had a middle class upbringing, as the son of a fairly successful coal and grain merchant. He emigrated to the United States at age 25, eventually making his way to San Francisco where he opened a successful bookstore. He shared a building with popular photographer Silas Selleck, and also began selling engravings and photographic prints.

In 1860 he sold the store to his brother and planned a trip to England and continental Europe to buy more books. He took the Butterfield Overland Stage to New York, but during the trip the stagecoach crashed. One passenger was killed and Muggeridge badly injured. He was in a coma for nine days and obviously had a significant brain injury, with symptoms including double vision, seizures, and loss of his senses of taste and smell for months after the accident.

Although it wasn’t recognized at the time, the description of his symptoms would today be considered to indicate injury to the frontal cortex of the brain. This might have led to some of the poor emotional control and eccentric behavior Muybridge exhibited throughout his later life.

He completed his recovery back in England and decided to stay there for a bit, since the American Civil War had broken out at the time. He apparently learned -- or began practicing -- photography during his time in England, since he is known to have exhibited photographs at the Great London Exhibition of 1862. He was busy in other ways, too, obtaining patents for a new type of washing machine and a printing plate. He apparently made quite a bit of money, then lost it all in the English banking crisis of 1865.

During this time he also changed his name from Muggeridge to Maybridge, and then Muybridge.

Early Photography
Muybridge returned to the U.S. in 1866, living in San Francisco and listing himself as Edward Muybridge, Photographer. He concentrated on landscapes, converting a wagon into a portable darkroom. He made large prints, picture albums, and stereographs, which all sold well.

His reputation was made in the late 1860s when his large views of Yosemite Valley became published. Unlike the romantic photographers of the day, who emphasized soft, misty views, Muybridge attempted to create sharp, detailed images. His style was emulated by later Western landscape photographers like Paul Strand and Ansel Adams.

Eadweard Muybridge, Cloud's Rest, Valley of the Yosemite, ca. 1872, albumen.

Muybridge’s landscapes differed from others of the day in their very realistic skies and cloud formations. Muybridge is arguably credited as the first photographer to use a split neutral density filter in his landscape work to avoid overexposing the sky. The truth, though, is that Muybridge also kept a large stack of cloud and sky negatives in his darkroom. If the sky was blown out of a photograph he just placed a nice sky-and-cloud negative behind it when he made his final prints. Truly, the man was ahead of his time.

Muybridge was also known to be rather obsessive and something of a daredevil. His photographs of Yosemite and other Western landscapes show locations other photographers never saw. Muybridge travelled into areas considered too inaccessible or dangerous by other photographers, and often shot from locations like ledges along cliff edges. His assistants of that time recall lowering Muybridge and his heavy view cameras on ropes over cliffs so he could get exactly the shot he wanted.

Muybridge himself, sitting on a ledge some 2,000 feet high.
Eadweard Muybridge, Contemplation Rock, Glacier Point, 1872, from albumen stereo card.

The governments of the United States and California hired him for several projects. In 1867, the United States bought the colony of Russian America -- later to become the State of Alaska -- from Russia for US$7.2 million. The decision was widely unpopular before the discovery of gold in Alaska, and most Americans thought of their acquisition as a frozen wasteland. A year after the purchase, the U.S. government hired Muybridge to photograph what was then called the Department of Alaska, and his images were widely circulated to support the idea that the department contained valuable and interesting real estate.

He also photographed the Modoc Indian war for the U.S. Army. Other than photographs of campsites and tents, there was little with which to meet the demand for images of the ‘war,’ which involved about 50 Native Americans who fought 500 cavalrymen for six months. Muybridge used a little creative license, getting the Army’s Indian scouts to pose, and later labeling the images “Modoc braves awaiting in ambush.”

Eadweard Muybridge, A Modoc Warrior on the Warpath, 1873, from albumen stereo card.

Muybridge was very well-known by 1870, although by a slightly different name.  He changed it one final time, from Edward to Eadweard, because he felt an affinity for the ancient English Kings who spelled their name that way, although he signed his photographs “Helios,” the god of light.

His landscapes were sold all over the world. His photographs of San Francisco -- including some of the earliest panoramas -- were extremely popular. He was hired by San Francisco’s many millionaires to photograph their magnificent new homes and families. If his career had ended then, he would still be discussed today as one of the better photographers of the era, but Eadweard was just getting started.

Muybridge and Stanford
Being one of the premier photographers in the San Francisco area, it isn’t surprising that Muybridge took commissions from Leland Stanford. Stanford had made a fortune as a merchant during the California gold rush, become Governor of California, and was majority owner of the Central Pacific Railroad, the Western half of the first transcontinental railroad. Muybridge was hired to photograph two of Stanford’s homes, as well as his family.


To keep himself from getting bored when he wasn’t busy completing his plans for world domination, Stanford had a large horse-breeding ranch located in what is now Palo Alto, California. Stanford was interested in the gait of the horse, and particularly in one of the unanswered questions of the day: whether all four hooves were ever off of the ground at the same time.

Stanford told Muybridge to take pictures of his horses running to demonstrate if the hooves ever all left the ground. When Muybridge explained that the cameras of the day couldn’t possibly take such a short exposure, Stanford offered him US$2,000, an unlimited expense account, and the assistance of a couple of engineers. Muybridge decided that perhaps it could be done after all.

There is an urban legend that Stanford had made a US$25,000 bet regarding this, but the truth is he had read Étienne-Jules Marey’s book Animal Mechanism, which suggested that a photograph could be made of a horse running, and would show all four feet off of the ground at once. At any rate, Stanford’s expenses for the project totaled over US$50,000, so he would still have lost money even if he had won such a bet.

Today, the concept of ‘stop-action’ photography is taken for granted. In those days, photographers timed their exposures using their hat to cover and uncover the lens while they counted “One Mississippi, Two Mississippi.” The idea of exposures lasting for just a fraction of a second was unheard of.

Muybridge designed a simple wooden shutter that would allow short exposure times. He also experimented with different chemical combinations for both plates and developers that were more light sensitive, used white sheets and reflectors to maximize the available light, and only photographed on sunny summer days. In late 1872 or early 1873 -- there is some disagreement on the exact date -- he was able to make a rather blurry silhouette photograph of Stanford’s trotter ‘Occident’ that showed all four feet off of the ground.

Stanford and Muybridge claimed success, but there is significant controversy. No negatives exist and the positives seem to indicate a photograph of a painting of a running horse. It has since been said that Muybridge projected the blurry original negative through a magic lantern, had a local artist paint the projection onto a canvas, and then photographed the panted canvas to make his final print. It makes a little Photoshop manipulation seem rather benign, doesn’t it?

Eadweard Muybridge, Horses, Trotting, ca. 1881, albumen, published in The attitudes of animals in motion: a series of photographs illustrating the consecutive positions assumed by animals in performing various movements.

Nevertheless, this photograph vaulted Muybridge from well-recognized landscape photographer to national fame as someone who was taking photographs of things never seen before. Newspapers across the country published engravings of his photograph, and with few exceptions praised the work. There would be an interruption, however, before Muybridge could capitalize on his new fame.

The Murderous Photographer
While Muybridge’s professional life was doing well in the mid 1870′s, his personal life was not. Muybridge had reached his mid-forties still a bachelor. This is probably not too surprising, since in California there were 10 males for every female.

In 1871, however, he met a much younger woman. Flora Shallcross Stone, then 21, was working as a shop girl. Muybridge, although much older, was well known and well to do. Flora was all over him like salmonella on warm chicken. Despite the misgivings of his friends -- Flora had a ‘colorful’ past, and was already a divorcee, something quite rare in those days -- they were married in 1872.

Muybridge spent several months traveling throughout the wilderness each year on various photographic assignments. During his absences Flora was escorted to various plays and concerts by a local drama critic, Harry Larkyns.

When Flora gave birth to their first child in 1874, Muybridge was overjoyed. Some months later, however, the midwife who attended the birth told Muybridge that the child was not his, and produced as evidence several letters Flora had written to Larkyns, professing her love and telling Larkyns her child was really his.

Muybridge calmly walked to his studio, loaded one of the guns he carried on his many trips into the wilderness, took a ferryboat across the bay, and hired a coach to drive him to a mining camp where Larkyn was working. In front of a dozen witnesses playing poker, Muybridge walked up to Larkyns and said, “Good evening. My name is Muybridge. I have a message for you from my wife.” He then calmly shot Larkyns, killing him instantly. Muybridge handed his gun to the innkeeper, apologized to the card players for interrupting their game, and patiently sat waiting to be arrested.

Muybridge’s lawyers, apparently hired by Stanford, presented a plea of insanity and called multiple witnesses who testified about Muybridge’s strange behavior and ‘fits’ since his stagecoach accident. Apparently Muybridge became somewhat offended by this talk of insanity, insisted on taking the stand himself, and told the jury he was not insane. To put a little icing on the cake, he added that if given the opportunity, he would kill Larkyns again. (Personally, I think if you’re facing a death sentence, your lawyers enter an insanity plea, and you then tell the jury you aren’t insane -- well, you are.)

Somewhat in desperation after Muybridge nuked his own insanity defense, Pendergast turned to his considerable oratory skills. Realizing the jury was made up of 12 middle-aged married men who had lived most of their life in the Wild West, Pendergast made no apologies for the murder. Instead, in his closing arguments, he asked the jury to consider a higher law than the laws of California: the laws of human nature. His closing arguments concluded:

“I cannot ask you to send this man forth to family and home -- he has none. But I do ask you to send him forth free -- let him take up the thread of his broken life, and resume that profession on which his genius had shed so much luster, the profession which is now his only love. Let him go forth into the green fields, by the bright waters, through the beautiful valleys, and up and down the swelling coast, and in the active work of the magic of his art, he may gain ‘surcease of sorrow’ and pass on to his allotted end in comparative peace.”

It was reported that those in the courtroom gave a standing ovation at the end of Pendergast’s speech, and that many in attendance openly wept.

The judge then instructed the jury that Muybridge could only be found either guilty, or innocent by reason of insanity. He then reminded them that Muybridge himself had said that he was not insane. Regardless, the jury promptly returned a verdict of not guilty, considering it a justified killing --  a verdict never used since in California. (Rumor has it that the closely related ‘he needed killin’ verdict is used with some frequency in Texas, however.)

Muybridge left the country almost immediately, photographing Central America for a steamship line that wanted to publicize their destination. He and Flora had a contentious legal battle over whether she should receive alimony in their divorce, which ended when she died suddenly at age 24. I’ve watched enough crime shows to think it strange when a 24 year old dies suddenly from unknown causes, while divorcing a man who works every day with toxic chemicals, but apparently no one else thought it odd.

Although he didn’t realize it at the time, during the Central American trip Muybridge would make nearly his last, and possibly his best, landscape work. Even by today’s standards, his signature cloudy skies are still awesome.

Eadweard Muybridge, Ruins of a Church, Antigua, Guatemala, 1875, albumen.


Eadweard Muybridge, Reception of the Artist in Panama, 1875, albumen.

How Horses Moved, Part 2
When Muybridge returned from Central America, Stanford wanted him to improve on the photographs of moving horses he’d done in 1873.  This time he wanted a series of photographs, taken sequentially; every few feet as the horses ran by.

Muybridge helped design the track where the photographs would be made. He used lime to whiten the track itself, had a large, whitewashed wall the horses would run in front of,  and set markers to show the distance travelled with each photograph. He experimented with his chemicals, creating an ammonia-based developer that would work on images with minimal exposures. He modified stereo cameras so that two lenses exposed each plate, doubling the amount of light for each shot.

With help from Stanford’s engineers, he devised a mechanical shutter using two pieces of wood tripped by a string the horse broke as it ran past. Unfortunately, the horses, being suspicious creatures with excellent eyesight, would often come to a complete stop at the first string. When they did finally get a horse to run through the strings, it was as likely to pull the expensive cameras over as to trip the mechanical shutters.

Muybridge and another of Stanford’s engineers, John Isaacs, developed electro-magnetic shutters as a solution to the problem. Finally, in 1877 and 1878, Muybridge was able to obtain a series of exposures of Stanford’s horse ‘Sallie Gardner’ at full gallop. They arranged demonstrations for local reporters who watched Stanford expose and develop the images, making sure this time there were no questions about the reality of their photographs.

Eadweard Muybridge, The Horse in Motion, 1878, albumen printed on card.

Today, it’s hard for us to understand the impact these images had. They demonstrated something that had never been seen before, a still image of a rapidly moving creature. The first images taken from a microscope or telescope may have come close, but those didn’t show something people saw every day the way Muybridge’s photographs did. The results were reported in papers around the world, including Scientific American and La Nature, the French journal of science.

For the first time, photography was being used to advance and document scientific research. To complete the circle, Étienne-Jules Marey wrote to Muybridge and Stanford, congratulating them and making suggestions for further work. (Marey himself would later contribute several inventions to stop-motion photography.)

Muybridge took the work a step further, beginning stop-motion photographs of other animals and people. He also developed a slightly different technique, using multiple cameras to photograph the subject from various angles in a circle. He called these foreshortenings, but we know them as frozen-time shots, or the Matrix ‘bullet-time’ effect.

He also invented what he called a zoopraxiscope, which placed a series of images on the outside of a glass disk that was then spun in front of a projecting magic lantern. The result was a repeating clip of a second or two’s length, showing the animal’s actual motion.

Eadweard Muybridge, The Zoopraxiscope -- Horse Galloping, 1893, color lithograph.


Eadweard Muybridge, Animal Locomotion, 1877, animated from collotype.

He demonstrated this device to Thomas Edison in 1888, which some said inspired Edison to invent the Kinetoscope, the earliest motion picture device. That may or may not be, but Edison filed his first ‘caveat,’ or intention to patent a motion picture device, soon after he saw Muybridge’s zoopraxiscope. And just to close the circle once again, Mayer, who started all of this with his suggestion of stop-motion photography, had himself invented a ‘chronographic gun,’ capable of taking twelve frames per second. Edison visited Mayer in 1889, and immediately after returning to the U.S. filed another ‘caveat’ for a motion picture camera.

Coincidence? Probably not. But karma being what it is, Edison forgot -- or didn’t think -- to file patents in other countries. This allowed the Lumiere brothers and others to perfect motion picture projection and refine motion picture cameras in Europe.

The Great Falling Out
Muybridge began a lecture tour in 1880 that took him through the U.S. and Europe. In 1882, while lecturing in London and discussing obtaining long-term support from the Royal Society, his career hit another bump. Stanford and D. J. Stillman published “The Horse in Motion as Shown by Instantaneous Photography.” The book contained drawings of the photographs Muybridge had taken, but gave him absolutely no credit. Stanford considered Muybridge a hired technician, and since he had not used the actual photographs, saw no reason to include him as an author.

The effect on Muybridge’s career was profound. The Royal Society withdrew their offer, fearing that Muybridge had not really done the work he claimed. Muybridge sued both Stanford and the publisher. In Muybridge fashion, however, he lost both lawsuits largely because he claimed credit for everything to do with the project and lost credibility. He never forgave Stanford, though, and made references to him in lectures and publications for years.

Muybridge landed on his feet, however, taking a position at the University of Pennsylvania, who set up a lab for him to continue his work on scientific photography of animals and humans in motion. They set up a committee of nine academics to oversee the work, and make certain it remained scientific, but also realized the work would aid artists in their drawings and paintings.

Muybridge was prolific. He photographed birds in flight, and almost every available animal moving at different gaits. Photographs of humans demonstrated the gaits of various diseases for medical training, athletes in motion, and hundreds of nude models in various movements. In total he made almost 100,000 images that appeared in a number of books.

The first, “Animal Locomotion: An Electro-Photographic Investigation of Consecutive Phases of Animal Movements,” was published in 11 volumes containing 20,000 images. It instantly became a classic reference for artists and scientists alike.

Perhaps the best demonstration of how much Muybridge was respected is shown by the fact that he made several thousand photographs of nude models while at Pennsylvania and not a word was said. One of the committee members overseeing his work was fired for having a single nude model pose in his art class.

Eadweard Muybridge, Animal Locomotion, 1877, collotype.


Eadweard Muybridge, Animal Locomotion, 1877, collotype.

The Later Years
Muybridge began a second successful lecture tour in 1886. It lasted until 1893, when he opened a Zoopraxographical Hall at the Chicago World’s Exposition. This last was not a financial success, and in 1894 he moved permanently back to his childhood home, Kingston upon Thames, England. While there, he published two more books: “Animals in Motion” and “The Human Figure in Motion.” He died in 1904, and in one last bit of irony for the man who changed his name so often, the name on his tombstone is Maybridge, not Muybridge.

(Roger Cicala is the founder of LensRentals.com. Visit LensRentals.com to check out that cool lens you've been hankering for, and for some of the best customer service on the Internet!)

Brian Clegg: The Man Who Stopped Time. The Illuminating Story of Eadweard Muybridge – Pioneer Photographer, Father of the Motion Picture, Murderer. Joseph Henry Press, 2007.
Gordon Hendricks: Eadweard Muybridge, the Father of the Motion Picture. Secker and Warburg, 1975.
Miles, Walter: The Stanford-Muybridge Motion Pictures of 1878-1879. Address to the Semi-Centennial Celebration of the Stanford Motion Picture Institute. May 8, 1929.
Somit, Rebecca: River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West. Penguin Books, 2004.
Stern, Keith: Freezing Time: The Autobiography of Eadweard Muybridge. Shoreham House Publishers, 2011. NOTE: This is a historical novel, not an actual autobiography. But it is a fun read.
Leslie, Mitchell: The Man Who Stopped Time. Stanford Magazine, 2001.

More Muybridge:
Stephen Herbert’s page links to dozens of fascinating links concerning Muybridge.