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Eadweard James Muybridge

“Only photography has been able to divide human life into a series of moments, each of them has the value of a complete existence.” — Eadweard James Muybridge

It was on a one-month expedition to the Yosemite Valley in California, then still a god-forsaken area, that Muybridge first drew attention to himself. One commentator praised his pictures, "taken from points of view not heretofore used ... climbing to the best points of sight with his camera, often with great difficulty and danger ... 800 pictures, some of which present effects beyond any heretofore taken." These Yosemite pictures marked the beginning of Muybridge's career as a government photographer. One of their much-praised features seems almost banal today: skies full of fluffy clouds combined with a detailed landscape foreground. Muybridge frequently employed the montage technique, permitting him to manipulate landscape photographs such that, for instance, they appeared to have been taken by moonlight.

His major achievement, however, required more than a few darkroom tricks. In order to record a horse in full gallop, an exposure time of less than 1/1000 second was necessary. How was this to be done in an epoch when glass plates still had to be exposed in a wet collodion process for at least ten seconds, if not several minutes? Muybridge, with John D. Isaacs, worked untiringly on improving shutters and light-sensitive emulsions, and in 1877 finally succeeding in making a few instantaneous photographs of the horse Occident in full canter.

To his contemporaries, this seemed as sensational as breaking the sound barrier would decades later. In consequence, Muybridge envisioned recording the sequential movements of animals, and later of human beings, with the aid of entire batteries of cameras—first 12, then 24—and sophisticated systems of electrical contacts. The experiments consumed great sums of money, initially provided by Muybridge’s patrons, former Governor Stanford, and later the University of Pennsylvania. In 1887, his legendary work Animal Locomotion appeared. According to an announcement, the 781 phototypes in 11 volumes contained "more than 20,000 figures of men, women, and children, animals and birds, actively engaged in walking, galloping, flying, working, jumping, fighting which illustrate motion or the play of muscles." This encyclopedia remains a must for physiologists and visual people, a feast for the eye.

Muybridge's inventiveness knew no bounds. In a letter to the editor of 1882, he was the first to suggest the idea of photographing the finishes of horse races in order to exclude judges’ errors.

Excerpt taken from 50 Photographers You Should Know by Peter Stepan

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