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Eadweard Muybridge at Tate Britain, review

September 10, 2010

Eadweard Muybridge was a great pioneer, says Richard Dorment

Eadweard Muybridge Boxing; open hand. Plate 340, 1887 (detail) Collotype on paper

Eadweard Muybridge Boxing; open hand. Plate 340, 1887 (detail) Collotype on paper Photo: Mark Gulezian/QuickSilver Photog

When a magisterial survey of the photographs of Eadweard Muybridge opens in London on Wednesday, the venue – Tate Britain – signals a subtle change in the way we look at his work. Muybridge’s stop action photographs and moving images are, of course, precursors of the early cinema and not so long ago this show would probably have been staged at the Science Museum or the National Media Museum. By showing these photographs at Tate Britain the organisers encourage us to look at them as art – and not just as art, but as British art. The new context adds yet another dimension to our understanding of this extraordinary man’s achievement. After visiting the show last week, I realised for the first time that Muybridge was probably the most important artist/scientist since George Stubbs.

Not Stubbs the painter, but Stubbs the anatomist, draughtsman and engraver whose The Anatomy of the Horse (1766) and Comparative Anatomical Exposition of the Structure of the Human Body with that of a Tiger and a Common Fowl were direct precedents for Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion (1887). Just as Stubbs’s painstakingly detailed drawings of dissected cadavers synthesise scientific accuracy and aesthetic perfection, so Muybridge’s 20,000 stop action photographs of animals and humans make visible something the human eye had never before seen: the beauty of movement itself.the beauty of movement itself.

Born in 1830 plain Edward Muggeridge in Kingston upon Thames, at the age of 22 this strange man emigrated to the United States, initially to work for a publisher and then as a seller of books, prints and sheet music. After his return to England in 1860 he must have taken up photography – because when he turns up again seven years later in San Francisco, having changed both his first and last names, he set up a photographic studio that operated under yet another pseudonym, “Helios”.

There is little in the first few years of Muybridge’s career to suggest his future reputation as one of the supreme innovators in the history of photography. Many of the early photos look like the work of a talented jack-of-all trades, happy to photograph the mansions of railroad magnates or document a day in the life of workers on a Guatemalan coffee plantation. More interesting is his photo journalism. A series of photographs commissioned by the American government shows the terrain, ports, frontiersmen and the Indians in the newly acquired Alaskan territory. When he accompanied the US Cavalry to north-east California to record their suppression of an uprising by the Madoc Indians, the series movingly conveys the harsh reality of conflict in the Wild West.

Read more at: Muybridge: the beauty of movement

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