Archive for Eadweard Muybridge

Obsession: Eadweard Muybridge at SFMOMA

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , , on February 27, 2011 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Muybridge Fencing 1887
Eadweard Muybridge, Fencing (Movements. Male). 1887
Collotype on paper
(Corcoran Gallery of Art)

One of the many astonishing tasks assigned to me as an intern at the Worcester Art Museum one summer in the mid-70s was to cut mats for prints in the Museum’s collection of 19th-century photographs. Among the many prints I handled in the cellar workroom as part of that assignment, Eadweard Muybridge’s (1830-1904) motion studies made the most profound and lasting impression on me.

As I discovered this week at SFMOMA’s “Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change,” those plates still generate wonder and awe all these years later.

Eadweard Muybridge, Leland Stanford, Jr. on his Pony “Gypsy
(Phases of a Stride by a Pony While Cantering), 1879
Collodion positive on glass
(Wilson Centre for Photography, London; photo courtesy SF MOMA)

The grid presentation must have been part of their appeal. Although it has become a pervasive, even banal, visual presentation vehicle since, in the mid-70s the grid was a fresh aesthetic. In any case, the Muybridge have managed to retain originality. Each one of their “cells”—an individual “freeze frame”— contains its own inherent fascination; in the disconnect between what the eye sees but the brain does not register lies powerful affirmation of the marvel that is life on Earth.

Bernd & Hilla Becher, Framework Houses, negative 1970
Offset photolithograph, 24 3/4 x 19 3/4 in
(Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

The motion study plates gives a tantalizing glimpse of the rich junction where science and art meet. The Victorians congregated en masse at this place; in their quest to understand ever deeper truths about the world around them, they obsessively experimented, collected and cataloged. During the latter half of the 19th century an understanding of scientific phenomenon expanded and with it came technological and cultural change.

Muybridge was a vigorous participant in this transformation. The most exciting characteristic of the intersection of art and science is its unpredictability. Muybridge’s work is no exception. Every once in a while a truly magnificent work of art emerges from among the uninspiring duds; for me Fencing, Boxing, Movement of the Hand; Lifting a Ball are among the best kind of aesthetic successes.

Eadweard Muybridge, Valley of the Yosemite,
Confluence of the Merced, and Yosemite Creek, No. 21, 1872
Albumen silver print
(The Society of California Pioneers)

As the SF MOMA show amply demonstrates, there is so much more to Eadweard Muybridge than motion.

In particular, walk through the rooms filled with sublime compositions of Yosemite and question why Carleton Watkins’ reputation as a landscape photographer has eclipsed that of Muybridge.

Carleton Watkins, Yosemite Valley, ca. 1865
(Library of Congress)

Muybridge distinguished himself as a chronicler of the urban world too. His 17-foot long view of San Francisco (1877) may have established him as first photographer to assemble plates into a panoramic view. This monumental piece is a fitting testament to the capabilities of man. The photograph provides inescapable fascination as one contemplates the notion of the passage of time. Logjams will form undoubtedly form in the room, as visitors take time to pour over the startling minute detail of this work.

Eadweard Muybridge, The Ramparts, Funnel Rock, Hole in the Wall,
Pyramid, Sugar Loaf, Oil House, and Landing Cove on
Fisherman’s Bay, South Farallon Island
1871
Albumen silver print
(U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s Office; photo courtesy of SF MOMA)

Eadweard Muybridge, Bridge on the Puerto Bello, Panama, 1875
Albumen silver print
(Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA;
Photo courtesy of SF MOMA)

With some seven rooms filled with photographs, surely no visitor will leave this show unconvinced of Eadweard Muybridge’s artistic legacy.

Wider Connections

SFMOMA catalog—Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change
Muybridge Collection, Lone Mountain College
Eadweard Muybridge SF Panorama

Trouvelot’s Natural Art “Brought to Light” at SFMOMA

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , , , , on December 8, 2008 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

trouvelot-figure

Étienne-Léopold Trouvelot, Direct electric spark obtained with a Ruhmkorff coil or Wimshurst machine, also known as “Trouvelot Figure.” photograph, ca. 1888-89 (© Musée des arts et métiers, Conservatoire national des arts et métiers, Paris)

Before its transformation into an art medium, photography dutifully served as a handmaiden to science. Beginning in the mid-19th century, photographers enthusiastically set out to “objectively” record all manner of things, locales, and phenomenon in the natural and man-made worlds. Judging by SFMOMA’s exhibit Brought to Light exhibit (on view until Janurary 4, 2009), the quest to illuminate “invisible” phenomena yielded not just advancements in scientific understanding but most intriguing artistic results.  The images here embrace a scope that ranges from the infinitesimal to the infinite. Amid the numerous insect studies, the microscopic comparison of the structure of snowflakes by Wilson Bentley is a masterpiece of artistic design in its own right. On the other end of the scale, it’s harder to appreciate the novelty of the astronomical images in the show after decades of NASA-driven photography.  For some, the Muybridge motion studies will be a revelation, although regrettably a few of the less interesting ones involving naked women struggle to rise above the level of Victorian-era titillation.

The number of singular gems overshadows the few weaker pieces. The several “Trouvelot figures” similar to the one above are still capable some 150 years later of eliciting a breathy “wow,” even in the face of our technically-sophisticated modern imaging techniques. Though reviled for his introduction of the dredded gypsy moth into the United States, and better known artistically for his telescopic drawings of celestial bodies, Étienne-Léopold Trouvelot also used photography to illuminate the invisible world of electricity. In this endeavor he excelled, achieving stunning otherworldly results.

Strictly speaking, Trouvelot wasn’t innovating, but using photography to recreate an electrical phenomenon already discovered a century before. In 1778 German satirist and scientist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg conducted a seminal experiment, in which he found that a rapid electric discharge over a non-conducting plate caused the powder on the plate to be arranged in unusual patterns with different characteristics depending on the type of charge. Lichtenberg found that by pressing blank sheets of paper onto these pattens, he was able to transfer and record these images (thus discovering the basic principle of modern xerography). These “patterns” are still referred to as “Lichtenberg figures.” Like snowflakes, each figure displays a unique pattern.

In the late 1880s, Trouvelot found that substituting a photographic plate (emulsion side in contact with an electrode) for Lichtenberg’s insulating plate allowed him to produce “Lichtenberg figures” on the developed photograph. Thus, these photographs of his became known as “Trouvelot figures.”

Modern day applications of this technique abound—

For anyone interested in the history of photography, Brought to Light is an invaluable introduction to many photographers not generally covered in the usual surveys. For those with less scholarly interests, the show is simply a reminder that nature often has no artistic equal.

Wider Connections

Bean Gilsdorf— “The Eye of Science”
Trouvelot on the American Silk Worm
NYPL exhibit
Owl’s Cabinet of Wonders—”Heavenly Visions” post
Georg Christoph Lichtenberg—Waste Books

Galloping into History

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , , , , , on July 1, 2008 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Muybridge Animated Horse

Eadweard Muybridge, Animation of Galloping Horse (details below)

This week I began work on a series of paintings inspired by the long and multi-faceted relationship between human and horse. As I was researching equine anatomy, my mind wandered to the summer of 1973, when I interned at a regional art museum in the curatorial department. Among other duties, I spent a a good deal of time in the basement workshop making mats for new additions to the museum’s photographic collection. To this day what I remember were the Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) horse motion studies.

The details of Muybridge’s life are well documented—his strange and multiple name changes, a murder rap, the brief career as a fine landscape photographer. Depending on which version of the story you believe in 1872 then-Governor of California Leland Stanford commissioned Muybridge to settle a bet/answer a question about whether a horse does/does not gallop with all four legs off the ground.  The result (below) answered Stanford’s question definitively and caused Muybridge to abandon landscapes for full devotion to the study of locomotion. Art would never be the same.

Eadweard Muybridge, Galloping Horse, 1878, series of 16 photographs, most likely collotypes.

The motion studies have reached mythic proportions in our collective cultural subconscious. Although technically photographs, Muybridge’s serial presentation technique, as well as subsequent animations of the stills, seem to offer us proof of a “big bang” moment in the transition from photography to motion pictures. Whoa Nellie! Not so fast.

Although these studies led to the invention by Muybridge of the zoopraxiscope—a large projector with individual pictures mounted on revolving discs—it turns out that he wasn’t all that interested in the depiction of motion through photography. In his 1958 review in College Art Journal, Beaumont Newhall asserts:

“Muybridge, however, was not interested in the synthesis of motion through photography, and it was left to others to perfect cinematographic techniques. He set himself a double task: the scientific analysis of the mechanism of locomotion in men and animals, and the production of an atlas of photographs, which artists might find useful as substitutes for living models.”

At first, many artists resisted changing the centuries old ways they had depicted motion. (How anatomically quaint Delacroix’s “flying gallop” seems post-Muybridge!) Eventually, however, Muybridge’s oeuvre did become the comprehensive sourcebook for artists, sort of the motion articulation cousin of Owen Jones’ Grammar of Ornament. Impressionists most vigorously embraced photography as an aid to painting; Degas in particular is known to have modeled several of his racehorse sketches after Muybridge plates.

So in fact Muybridge did gallop off into history, but not on the horse we may have  thought.

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