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]

Photos show effects of climate change on Everest

A new series of photos from the Himalaya reveal the undeniable effects of global climate change on the glaciers there. This is especially evident on Mt. Everest, where comparative shots from 1921 show just how much the Rongbuk Glacier has retreated over the past 89 years.

Filmmaker and mountaineer David Breashears made the journey to Everest’s North Side, where explorer George Mallory once took a very famous photo of the mountain. Standing in the very spot where Mallory once shot his image, Breashears took a new one, and the differences between the two are startling. In the earlier photo, a thick layer of snow and ice stretches far down the valley, but in the one taken by Breashears, the glacier has withered dramatically. In fact, the Rongbuk has lost more than 320 vertical feet since Mallory shot his photo.

Over the past few years, Breashears has visited a number of other famous mountains throughout Nepal, Tibet, and Pakistan as well. While there, he took similar photos, and each case he discovered a significant loss of glacial ice, which is particularly troubling considering that the Himalayan glaciers are the Earth’s largest sub-polar ice reserves. The loss of that ice has already had a direct and profound impact on the mountains and the people that live there, many of whom now have to walk for hours each day just to find fresh water.

Breashears has taken his collection of photos and created an exhibit known as Rivers of Ice, which just went on display last week at the Asia Society, located in Manhattan. The photos will be open to the public to see until August 15, giving visitors a chance to witness the changes for themselves.

[Photo credit: AFP]