In the summer of 1878, Eadweard Muybridge filed for a patent. “The principal object,” the photographer and inventor explained in his application, “is to take photographic views of horses that are moving rapidly under speed, in order to determine the posture, position, and relation of their limbs in different portions of their step or stride.” Muybridge’s interest in the “step” and “stride” of horses dated to 1872, the year the railroad tycoon Leland Stanford asked him to resolve a debate among horse enthusiasts: When a horse was trotting (or galloping), did all four of its hooves leave the ground simultaneously? The answer, as Muybridge proved in a photographic project that stretched from 1872 to 1879, was yes. Using an array of cameras equipped with electric shutters, Muybridge settled a dispute that could not be settled by the human eye. His horse photographs demonstrated the artistic, scientific, and industrial potential of photography as a medium; they also made him famous, and launched his lifelong study of animal movement.
Muybridge was born Edward James Muggeridge in 1830, in a town south of London. But he would reinvent himself on multiple occasions, changing his name, profession, and city as he searched for new opportunities. In 1852, he moved to New York, where he became Edward Muggridge; in 1855, he moved to San Francisco, where he became E. J. Muggridge, then E. J. Muygridge, and finally, Eadweard Muybridge. Movement, for Muybridge, was central to his work and his identity alike. Following a career as a bookseller in New York and San Francisco, Muybridge devoted himself to photography. He made his name—by the 1870s, “Muybridge”—with photographs of California’s growing cities, as well as its striking coast and rugged interior. One of his most successful expeditions was to Yosemite Valley in 1872. The area’s granite mountains, towering waterfalls, giant sequoias, and lush meadows had been painted and photographed previously, leading Muybridge to seek out new terrain. In some prints, he depicted remote cliffs and cataracts from vantages that seem to defy gravity; in others, he depicted smooth-as-glass rivers that reflect distant peaks. In both cases, the photographer focused on rock and water—the two essential elements of Yosemite’s unique geology.
Muybridge left California for Central America in 1875, aboard a ship owned by the Pacific Mail Steamship Company. For over a year, he traveled from Panama to Mexico, with lengthy stops in El Salvador and Guatemala. All the while, Muybridge photographed bays and valleys, churches and cathedrals, palaces and fortifications, plazas and cemeteries, and markets and coffee plantations. “The subjects are all original, and have never been photographed before,” he boasted in the preface to an 1876 album containing many of the Central American prints. Muybridge, whose travels were funded by the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, was candid about the aim of these prints: to promote, in his words, “profitable enterprise” in Central America. (“Profitable” for foreigners, not locals.) Yet he also wished to celebrate the region’s physical beauty and cultural traditions, from the “remarkable volcanoes, lakes, mountain scenery, and luxuriant vegetation of Guatemala” to the “picturesque costumes and dwellings” of its Maya, Garífuna, and Xinca inhabitants. As these comments suggest, the Central American photographs—similar to the Yosemite photographs before them—are bound up with the imperialist context of their making.
Upon returning to California, Muybridge resumed work with Stanford. But the two had a falling out, and the photographer relocated to Philadelphia to advance his studies of animal movement at the University of Pennsylvania. After years of research and thousands of photographs, Muybridge published his results in an 11-volume book, Animal Locomotion (1887). As he wrote, the book’s 781 plates “comprise more than 20,000 figures of men, women, and children, animals and birds, all actively engaged in walking, galloping, flying, working, playing, fighting, dancing, or other actions incidental to every-day life.” He did not mention that his human subjects were local models, athletes, students, and hospital patients, and photographing them nude proved controversial. Moreover, it reinforced stereotypes. Muybridge, the scholar Sarah Gordon has argued, juxtaposed the bodies of men and women, young and old, healthy and unhealthy, in ways that suggest “human hierarchies based on gender and physical ability.”
Since it first appeared in the late 19th century, Animal Locomotion has found readers ranging from artists to scientists, doctors, and engineers. In this vast compendium of motion, Muybridge captured an astonishing variety of bodies and activities: men throw disks and lay bricks; women jump over stools and open parasols; horses trot, lions stride, and birds soar. “A work for the Art Connoisseur, the Scientist, the Artist and the Student of Art or of Nature,” Muybridge declared in an advertisement for his book. Like the photographer himself, Animal Locomotion was big, brash, and irreducible to a single field of knowledge.
Annemarie Iker, independent scholar, 2023