The photographer who changed the way we see the world

We’ve all seen them, those grainy series of black and white images showing animals walking or nude people climbing stairs or jumping. They’ve been used in art pieces, music videos, and are part of our visual heritage, but what are they all about?

A new exhibition at London’s Tate Britain tells the story of the photographer who took these enduring images. Eadweard Muybridge was a British immigrant to the U.S. in the 1850s. A skilled photographer, he traveled the world taking giant panoramic shots that he would then put on display, sort of an IMAX theater for Victorians. His seventeen-foot long panorama of San Francisco is one of the exhibition’s highlights.

His fame comes from his experiments with high-speed film in the 1870s. Muybridge wanted to answer the question of whether a galloping horse took all four hooves off the ground at the same time. People had been arguing about this for ages but the movement was too quick to catch with the unaided eye. Muybridge hired the Sacremento racetrack and put up a series of high-speed cameras that would be set off when the horse hit their tripwires. This technological innovation proved horses actually do leave the ground while galloping.

Muybridge became fascinated by human and animal movement and produced thousands of images. The people in his photographs are generally nude. While stuffy Victorian morality frowned on this sort of thing, since it was in the name of science Muybridge got away with it. One wonders how many of his books sold not for their scientific value, but because they contained plenty of cheesecake. He even made movies by stringing the images together on a spinning wheel called a zoopraxiscope. Muybridge was making movies twenty years before the movie camera was invented.

Muybridge at Tate Britain
runs until 16 January 2011.

[Photo courtesy Library of Congress]