MOTION PICTURES; Eadweard Muybridge Was a Colourful Character and a Technical Master -- but What Do His Photo Sequences of Horses Running and Ladies Leaping Contribute to the History of Art? EXHIBITION OF THE WEEK

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Byline: Brian Sewell

EADWEARD MUYBRIDGE Tate Britain, SW1 EDWARD Muggeridge, born in Kingston-upon-Thames in 1830, his father a grain and coal merchant, his mother from a family of barge workers who transported these commodities, seems not to have been a likeable man in his maturity. His wife accused him of extreme cruelty; his wife's lover, Harry Larkyns, he murdered within hours of proving the affair that he had long suspected; and his son he disinherited as the lover's bastard and left to the uncaring care of a Protestant orphanage. In later life he was litigious and when photographed cultivated an angry, penetrating stare more becoming to the prophet Moses.

How much of this irascibility is attributable to his banging his head when a stage coach in which he was travelling in Texas in 1860 collided with a tree, we shall never know. The injury was serious enough for him not only to sue the coach company the following year, but to return to England to recuperate. The years 1861-66 are now known as his Lost Years; 14 years after the coach crash, his first defence when charged with Larkyns's murder was insanity, brought about in part by injuries then sustained.

There was, however, an earlier sign of eccentricity: he seems to have disliked his names. At 21 or so, when he emigrated to New York and worked in the book trade, he was content with them, but within four years, crossing the continent to settle in San Francisco in 1855, he changed his surname to Muygridge; during the Lost Years he became Muybridge and by 1867, back in California, he had adopted the medieval spelling of his Christian name as Eadweard, presenting himself as Eadweard Muybridge, Artist-Photographer.

Throughout my lifetime Eadweard Muybridge has been widely acclaimed as the photographer who, more than any other, had a profound influence on the work of painters as various as his very near contemporary Edgar Degas (born 1834), and Francis Bacon, ours; but now I am inclined to think that that extended influence has been absurdly exaggerated. Thomas Eakins can just be added to this list of two, and indirectly, through the closely parallel work of the French photographer-scientist Etienne-Jules Marey (also born 1830), the Italian Futurists and Duchamp, but beyond this obvious handful, his interests are evident in the work of other photographers far more than painters and are part of the history, not of art, but of photography -- an almost irrelevant kettle of fish. Tate Britain's current re-examination of his work, however, neatly packaged and presented by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, unquestioningly supports the myth of Muybridge as a pioneer of modern art and goes so far as to see in his subjects and technology an undertaking somewhere between science and poetry that amounts to -- the error is almost amusing -- an encyclopedic enormity.

Muybridge seems to have learned the skills and complexities of photography during his Lost Years in his early thirties in England but there is no record of pupillage. There can be no doubt that he was technically knowledgeable, ingenious and inventive to an extraordinary degree -- so much so that in 1872, when challenged by a former governor of California, Leland Stanford, to photograph a horse trotting at speed, he did so. The objective -- to prove Stanford's assertion that at some point in the trot all four hooves were off the ground and the animal airborne -- was at first neither achieved nor refuted. More photographs were taken the following year but work on the project was then interrupted by Muybridge murdering Larkyns and standing trial for it; though acquitted, he found it discreet to leave immediately for Panama and Guatemala on an assignment for the Pacific Mail Steamship Company.

It was one of many journeys. In mid-1867, Muybridge had explored the natural wonders of Yosemite Valley on his own account and the success of landscape photographs taken then led to official commissions, the first the following year to accompany General Henry Halleck's exploration of Alaska, the purchase of which from Russia was ratified in July 1868. …


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