Exhibition traces instantaneous-photography movement
Eadweard Muybridge produced some of the most innovative stop-action photographs of the 19th century. He also got away with murder.
"He was a little bit nuts," Phillip Prodger, curator of "Time Stands Still: Muybridge and the Instantaneous Photography Movement," acknowledged last week on the opening day of the exhibition, which will remain on view through May 11 at the Cantor Center for Visual Arts. The exhibition does not dwell, however, on Muybridge's eccentric character. Rather, it aims to explore his achievements as an artist, Prodger said.
Focusing largely on the groundbreaking photography Muybridge (pronounced "my bridge") did for the railroad magnate and California governor Leland Stanford, the exhibition features roughly 170 works culled from collections in six countries. It surveys the development of instantaneous photography from the 1850s through the 1880s, including its notable practitioners and technological advances. Many of the works come from the Cantor Center's extensive Muybridge collection.
"Muybridge is one of Stanford's first academic heroes. I think it's absolutely fitting and right that this show should be staged here," Prodger said, explaining that the photographer began his most comprehensive motion-study work on Leland Stanford's Palo Alto Stock Farm, now the site of the Stanford University campus.
"This was the first academic project ever executed here, and it was every bit as ambitious as the frontiers that the scientists and scholars who work at the university now are still trying to conquer," Prodger said.
Indeed, it was here, with Leland Stanford's generous support, that Muybridge first employed a battery of cameras to take sequential pictures of horses in motion. This made it possible to examine the incremental movement of the animals' legs in photographs.
The Muybridge-Stanford collaboration began around 1872. Stanford apparently sought evidence showing that the hooves of a galloping horse were, at one point, all off the ground at the same time. Whether such evidence was needed to settle a bet -- a story that is often told to explain why Stanford wanted the experiment done in the first place -- has not been substantiated, Prodger said. "I personally believe that the story of the bet is apocryphal," he added. "There are really no primary accounts of this bet ever having taken place. Everything is hearsay and secondhand information."
In any case, Muybridge began his efforts in Sacramento but met with limited success. And his efforts came to a temporary but abrupt halt in 1874, when he killed Major Harry Larkyns in cold blood.
Larkyns had been carrying on an affair with Muybridge's young wife, Flora, and Muybridge appears to have snapped upon learning that the interloper was supposedly the father of the child he believed was his.
At 7:30 p.m. Oct. 17, 1874, Muybridge arrived in Calistoga, where Larkyns was working as a surveyor at the Yellow Jacket Mine. Muybridge took a carriage to the mine, shot Larkyns dead and gave himself up to the local authorities. A jury ruled Muybridge's act a justifiable homicide, and he was acquitted.
In 1875, Muybridge took a photographic expedition to Central America. After returning to California in 1876, he picked up the motion-studies project again. His relationship with Stanford eventually deteriorated, however, as a result of Stanford's publication of a lithographic compendium, The Horse in Motion, which Muybridge claimed did not properly credit him for his work.
Muybridge continued his motion studies at the University of Pennsylvania and published the famous Animal Locomotion portfolio in 1887.
Several events are scheduled to be held in conjunction with the "Time Stands Still" exhibition. The Cantor Center and the Stanford Interdisciplinary Research Workshop on Visuality and Literacy, whose theme this Winter Quarter is "the body in motion," are sponsoring a series of short-film screenings at the center. The series will begin with Film Before Film: The Ancestors of Time. What Really Happened Between the Images? at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 13. A full schedule of screenings is available at the Cantor Center website (www.stanford.edu/dept/ccva) under the "Public Programs and Events" heading. The films are free and open to the public on a space-available basis.
At 7 p.m. Feb. 20 in the Cantor Center, Rebecca Solnit, author of River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, will present a slide talk titled "Continuities: Eadweard Muybridge's Landscape and Motion Study Photography."
And on May 3, a daylong symposium titled "Eadweard Muybridge, Pioneer But of What?" will be held in Annenberg Auditorium. For more information or reservations, call 725-3155.
An exhibition catalog is scheduled to become available for purchase at the Cantor Center this spring.
By John Sanford