Eadweard Muybridge

This post has affiliate links. At no cost to you, we earn a commision for puchases made through links in this post. Read more

Eadweard Muybridge is often regarded as the father of motion pictures for  his early work in photographing rapid action and movements. It was a breakthrough in the history of motion capture technology. He was born in England in 1830 at Kingston-on-Thames. He came to the United States in 1852 and was commissioned by the government to take pictures of the Pacific Coast. Until 1867, his work did not gain any sort of attention. Then a series of his photographs of Yosemite, finally put him on the map and fetched him  a few medals. Some time after this, he chose to go on an expedition to Alaska and was one of the first photographers to capture pictures of the newly acquired territory. Then in 1870, he worked for Bradley and Rulofson of San Francisco. This house was popular for its stereoscopic viewing angles. Also some of the most fascinating stereographs of the gold fields also bear Muybirdge’s name. 

By the year 1872, Muybridge had established himself as a well known photographer with an extensive portfolio. In the same year, an individual known as Leland Stanford made a wager with a friend on the aerodynamic movement of galloping horses. Muybridge was asked to prove the point through his photographs that a galloping horse actually lifted all its four feet off the ground.. The wager was said to have been worth $ 25,000. With the help of wet plates under the blazing California  summer, Muybirdge managed to get giant underexposed plates which were enough to settle the bet in Stanford’s favour eventually. 

Again in 1877, Muybridge resumed his work on capturing rapid action and motion. Stanford was instrumental in making these experiments happen, as he gave Muybridge access to his tables and also to one of his engineers of the Central Pacific Railroad. A plethora of cameras were also set up in the shed next to each other to capture the consecutive phases of action on the racetrack. 

Muybridge made use of a mechanical device to trigger the shutter strings stretched across the length of the race track. The strings were attached to the shutters which closed with the action of  rubber bands. These shutters would eventually be replaced with electrically controlled ones. For achieving the seamless synchronization of these devices, Muybridge was awarded two separate patents in 1879. The background used in these experiments were covered with rock salt to offer maximum contrast on the slow wet plate. The results thereby achieved were“diminutive silhouettes” and were clear enough to offer evidence for the pursuit of scientific studies. The Library of Congress retained a set of the prints in 1878 and the rest  were published in numerous scientific journals. Finally in 1882, Stanford managed to finally publish the experiments in quarto known as the ‘ Horse in Motion /,which also featured a text written by J.B.D. Stillman. Muybirdge later made the complaint that the photographs were published without his name on the title page. 

It’s interesting to note that Muybirdge almost stumbled on the art of motion pictures by mistake as his primary aim was to capture motion. He realized that all he needed to recreate the effect of motion was to put up a series of photographs before the audience that captured the motion in parts. Until his discovery and methods, hand drawn rough analyses were shown in toys such as the phenakistoscope or the zoetrope. Marey had made efforts to undertake a study of animal locomotion in 1867 through these methods but was unsuccessful. However, Muybridge broke the trend and managed to become the first individual to showcase action and motion photographs in a primitive motion picture setting. He managed to create an effective mechanism to do this, where he fastened a number of slides on a large disk. Furthermore, he used an arc light, a condenser and a lens to throw the images on the side of the screen. This created the effect of motion. 

In the fall of 1879, at Stanford’s residence, Muybirdge claimed that he was the first to use this mechanism and called it a zoopraxiscope. Then two large demonstrations really put Muybridge on the global map. The first demonstration was at  Marey’s studio in 1881 in Paris which was covered in detail by many Parisian newspapers. . The second one was conducted, at the Royal Institution in London, with much fanfare and resulted in a lot of coverage in the scientific press in subsequent time. 

Then in 1883, Muybridge returned to America and lectured in various colleges and institutions in Boston, New York and Philadelphia. The University of Pennsylvania invited him to continue his work instigated by the painter Thomas Eakins, who was conducting similar experiments at that  time. It was here that he made radical improvements and refined his techniques and processes. He used specially synthesized dry plates from the Cramer Dry plate Company and he also used upto 12 cameras with custom made 2.5 inch lenses. He also created an improved synchronizer to trigger the shutters, which he termed as the “electro-expositor”. This was also patented in 1883. 

The shutter was made up of two sliding plates each of which was pierced with the help of a hole which was the size of the lens. Then one of these shutters were pulled downwards and the other pulled upwards. As they moved, for a fraction of a second, the two holes coincided with the lens. The shutters were released with a straightforward catch and then actuated by an electromagnet. 

The cameras were designed in a way that they could easily capture upto 24 successive exposures. Other than this, it could also take 3 different sets of twelve exposures from  three different perspectives. Even though the shortest possible exposure was regarded to be at 1/6000 of a second, Muybirdge had commented  that “A knowledge of the duration of the exposure was in this investigation of no value, and scarcely a matter of curiosity, the aim being to give as long an expo- sure as the rapidity of the action would permit.” 

Some time after this, Muybridge designed his first portable camera which he decided to fit with 13 matched lenses. One out of these thirteen was to serve as a finder. Thanks to the electro-expositor in tandem with the multiple plate holders was a huge upgrade technically. Now, it was no longer necessary to stretch two dozen threads across the track for every single take. He used the negatives of this camera to print the positives on glass. The prints were eventually published by the University of Pennsylvania in 1887 and were sold by subscription. However, he did not manage to sell too many copies of the complete set of Animal Locomotion. 

The subjects photographed in these prints were exhaustive and varied. About half of them represented animals. There were a lot of horses as well as elephants, antelopes and other ones borrowed from the Philadelphia zoo. The remaining plates were of individuals in action and some of them also involved the most mundane aspects of human life such as walking, climbing stairs and others. Muybridge’s main aim was to create photographs that could be useful to artists in understanding and recreating the minutiae of human figures in motion. 

In 1893, he managed to run an exhibition under the aegis of the US Bureau of Education. Another attraction at the exhibition was Edison’s peephole moving- picture machine, the kinetoscope Edison’s model was a derivative of the zoopraxiscope. In a letter to the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, in 1925, Edison said that the germ of his ideas of moving pictures “came from a little toy called the zoetrope and the work of Muybridge, Marey and others.” Even though by this time, Muybridge’s work was somewhat forgotten, he gave huge credit to Edison for perfecting the zoopraxiscope. Muybirdge breathed his last in 1904, in his native Kingston-On-Thames, in England. 

Resources for Photographers

Best DSLR Camera Under $1000
Best Mirrorless Cameras Under $1000
Best DSLR Camera Under $500
Best Action Cameras Under $100
The following two tabs change content below.
Dorothy Humphrey

Dorothy Humphrey

Dorothy and her interest in the history of photography drove her to incorporate historical articles as well on the website. According to her, we cannot speak of photography in the present without acknowledging the works of photographers in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Dorothy Humphrey

Latest posts by Dorothy Humphrey (see all)