Eadweard Muybridge: The Photographer Who Froze Time

Before John Logie Baird first demonstrated his television in 1927, before Thomas Edison showed his movie projector in 1888, photographer Eadweard Muybridge was making moving pictures.

Edward James Muggeridge was born in Kingston upon Thames, a London suburb, on April 9, 1830. He changed his name several times in his early life before finally settling on the surname Muybridge from 1865 onward.

Muybridge moved to New York in his twenties and set up a business importing books from England. Soon he moved to San Francisco, his final destination. He continued to import and began publishing books in San Francisco.

On one trip between California and New York, he was in a serious stagecoach accident. This was a few years before the transcontinental railroad was built, so part of the journey was by slow and dangerous stagecoaches. The driver was unable to control the horses and stage collided with the vehicle, killing at most one person and injuring many others.

Muybridge remained unconscious for several days, and it took him months to get well. He later attributed his injuries to causing his hair to turn prematurely gray. His scraggly hair and long bushy white beard caused him to look much older than he was. People also believe that the accident caused a personality shift in him, causing him to behave erratically sometimes. Some evidence suggests that he was eccentric and an odd character.

Portraits of Eadweard Muybridge from c.1860, 1873, and c.1895.

A Stormy Start to a Photography Career

Muybridge became interested in photography through a friend and was soon traveling to Yosemite to make scenic photographs. His scenic photographs were exceptional and he soon made most of his income selling prints of Yosemite scenes.

Valley of the Yosemite. From Mosquito Camp (1872), by Eadweard Muybridge.
Loya, Valley of Yosemite (1872), by Eadweard Muybridge.
Mirror Lake, Valley of the Yosemite (1872), by Eadweard Muybridge.

He also made some amazing large panoramic photos of San Francisco.

A panorama of San Francisco captured in 1878 by Eadweard Muybridge.

It was during this time in 1872 that he met Flora Shallcross Stone who was working as a retoucher in a photography studio where Muybridge was affiliated. She was 21 and married while he was 42. She divorced her husband and married Muybridge. Soon after their marriage, she began an affair with a known con man named Harry Larkyns. The relationship between Flora and Larkyns was not secret, as Muybridge spent weeks away taking photographs.

Flora was soon pregnant and had a boy. The child’s paternity was never determined for sure, but the midwife, Flora, and Larkyns assumed the baby was Larkyns’s. When Muybridge found out about the affair and that the baby may not be his son, he shot and killed Harry Larkyns on October 17, 1874.

At his trial, the defense attorney used the argument “Not guilty by reason of insanity” and brought in testimony by Muybridge’s friends to prove that he was emotionally unstable. The jury disregarded the insanity defense and acquitted Muybridge on the grounds of “justifiable homicide.” Flora filed for divorce and then died due to typhoid fever five months later. To let his mind clear and settle after the trial, Flora died. Muybridge took a long photographic trip to South America.

Using Photography to Stop Time

Back in San Francisco, Muybridge’s photography attracted the attention of Leland Stanford, the President of the Pacific Central Railroad and Governor of California. Stanford was an avid horse breeder and horse enthusiast. He wanted to get photographs of his horses running to determine exactly the moves they were making so he would learn which muscles needed strengthening in order to run faster.

Stanford’s photo challenge was no small task because instantaneous photographs were not possible with the then-current technology. Most exposures were in seconds, not fractions of a second. Cameras did not even have shutters, instead relying on removing the lens cap and counting for the exposure length.

Muybridge took on the challenge to create a special photo studio in 200 at a Palo Alto track with [******************************************************************************************************************************************** ************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************

Muybridge helped create a special photo studio in 1879 at a Palo Alto track with 24 cameras lined up in a shed. With the help of Stanford engineers, strings were used to capture horses with a shutter speed of up to 1/2000 of a second in a time when exposures were usually measured in seconds.

Stanford had bought a piece of property south of San Francisco to build a horse farm that he called Palo Alto Farm. Later, he established Palo Alto as a community and named the college after his son Leland Stanford Junior University.

It is unclear if Eadweard Muybridge worked for Stanford, or if Stanford was Muybridge’s client. This became an important question after credit and copyright disputes. In all likelihood, Stanford was a client, but Muybridge was not a good enough businessman to get the relationship in writing.

The working relationship was fairly close with Stanford making technical suggestions and providing engineers to help design electromagnetic shutters for the bank of 12 to 24 cameras that were to be fired in sequence as the horse ran by. Stanford funded the purchase of Palo Alto Farm for these photos.

Eadweard Muybridge’s The Horse in Motion, 1878.
Muybridge’s photos proved that horses have all four legs in the air during parts of its galloping stride.

Muybridge spent a good deal of his time traveling and giving lectures about the procedure and amazing audiences with the pictures of horses in motion. Stanford wrote “The Horse in Motion”, a book he published while he was on lecture tours in Europe. He didn’t give any credit to Eadweard muybridge. Muybridge was angry, but Stanford believed Muybridge to be just another employee and not worthy of mention.

Paving the Way for Motion Pictures

In 1879, Muybridge invented the zoopraxiscope, a device that used a round disc to project sequential images in quick succession. He used it extensively in his travels and lectures, thrilling audiences with the moving pictures.

Muybridge captured photos of a man and woman dancing a waltz in 1887 for “Animal Locomotion. An Electro-Photographic Investigation… of Animal Movements.”
An animation from the frames by Muybridge of a man and woman dancing.
A zoopraxiscope disc Muybridge made in 1893 based on his photos of the man and woman dancing. If the eye focuses only on one spot on the disc, spinning the disc gives the illusion that the disc is moving.

Muybridge called on Thomas Edison at his shop in New Jersey with the idea of using Edison’s phonograph to synchronize with the images from the zoopraxiscope, but the phonograph was not loud enough to be used in the large lecture halls where Muybridge was speaking and projecting images. It would be a few more decades and electronically amplified sound before sound movies would be a reality.

George Eastman invented the machine that coats a flexible film with a photographic oil. It was this link that made possible the movie projector and the movie camera.

The zoopraxiscope motion picture projector invented by Muybridge in 1879.

With Edison aware of Muybridge’s zoopraxiscope, he was likely working on a way to improve it to be used with his own inventions. Thomas Edison patent the movie projector quickly without crediting Muybridge. This effectively prevented Muybridge’s income and credit.

While moving from a spinning disk to a long piece of film was clearly a major improvement, Edison should not get full credit for inventing the movie projector with the historical data known of Muybridge’s earlier work.

Studies of Human and Animal Motion

After a lengthy legal battle and losing friendships with Leland Stanely and others in San Francisco who testified to his insaneness to save him from being hanged, Muybridge agreed to continue the project with humans and other animals. The University of Pennsylvania agreed to an arrangement, basically a research grant, which would allow Muybridge to use university property, some interns as helpers, and art students as models to advance his work.

Muybridge’s outdoor photo studio at UPenn around 1886 near 36th and Pine streets. Photo from the University of Pennsylvania Archives.
“Male, Jumping; standing broad jump (shoes)” by Eadweard Muybridge. Photo from the University of Pennsylvania Archives.

The university’s interests were primarily research, especially medical, trying to understand how the human body moves and works. Muybridge had already determined that some of the models would have to be nude to show the muscles that were used in various activities. The controversial aspect of this project was the one that nearly saw the entire project cancelled. The University of Pennsylvania project took place from 1884 through 1885.

One sequence from Muybridge’s motion studies of a man in motion.
Woman Descending Stairs, Looking Around and Waving a Fan by Eadweard Muybridge.
Woman Dancing (Fancy) by Eadweard Muybridge.

At the Columbia Exposition in Chicago in 1893, Muybridge was able to secure space to build a theater to show his moving pictures and sell his books. This was the world’s first purpose-built movie theater. Apparently, the theater was not a financial success because he didn’t renew the six-month lease and sailed back to England in 1894.

Muybridge would make an additional trip across the Atlantic to secure the negatives and prints from the University of Pennsylvania. Once again, there were legal issues over ownership, but eventually Muybridge was on his way back to England with 28 cases comprising more than 33,000 negatives and prints. With these he published Animals in Motion in 1899 and The Human Figure in Motion in 1901. By this time, the half-tone process had been invented and he was thus able to print photographs in books with a conventional printing press. “The Human Figure in Motion” came with a warning which could be summed up as “For Mature Audiences Only.”

Eadweard Muybridge never became a U.S. citizen despite spending forty years of his adult life in California, and he always considered himself an Englishman. He moved back to be close to his family in Kingston, dying there on May 8, 1904, at the age of 74. He left behind his “Animal Locomotion”, negatives and zoopraxiscope to Kingston Borough, where they are now on display with a panoramic photo of San Francisco.

For further reading, a great book on the life and impact of Eadweard Muybridge, and a primary source used for this article, is The Man Who Stopped Time by Brian Clegg.