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The photographer Eadweard Muybridge (1830–1904) is primarily remembered for his landmark efforts to capture fast-moving animals in freeze-frame and for stringing those images together to create the first practical, albeit brief, moving pictures. Not that the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s current retrospective—“Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change”—is in any rush to get to those celebrated works.
So extensive is the lead-up to Muybridge’s “Animal Locomotion” series that after 45 minutes of patiently working my way through examples of Muybridge’s early landscape, documentary, and commercial work, I had to duck out without seeing a single moving image. Instead I returned the next day for another 45-minute visit.
Organizing a retrospective this way is like assembling a Babe Ruth exhibition and devoting half of it to his pitching career. The early Muybridge had his share of achievements, but his animal and human freeze-frame work is what he’s remembered for—justly.
Born to a merchant family in England, Muybridge arrived in the United States in about 1851, it’s believed, when he was in his early 20s. In retrospect, he seems both restless and decidedly quirky. He began working as a bookseller before taking up photography; he crisscrossed the Atlantic and the United States at frequent intervals; he even manufactured his own name. He was born Edward James Muggeridge, and unlike most name-changing immigrants he chose a handle that was less, not more, American-sounding, purportedly taking the spelling of two 10th century Saxon kings honored in his hometown of Kingston upon Thames.
That iconoclasm may have helped him eventually become the revolutionary tinkerer-inventor who captured motion in photographs. But Muybridge’s meandering pre-“Animal Locomotion” career, so extensively chronicled in this exhibit, also leaves a good bit of chaff in its wake.
On the upside, Muybridge was a pioneering landscape photographer in what would become Yosemite National Park, and his work holds up in a crowded genre. Meanwhile, in a diverse array of other works, he produced images that were well ahead of their time—stacks of cannonballs in near-abstract shapes, cloud portraits made decades before Alfred Stieglitz’s, and a stitched-together, 17-foot, 360-degree panorama of the San Francisco skyline. Probably his most stunning works are a pair of images of the Pigeon Point lighthouse, 50 miles south of San Francisco. The “mammoth” 17-by-22-inch negatives allowed Muybridge to mix stunningly crisp detail of the scrubby shore with moody, milky portrayals of the ocean.
But too many of the earlier works are personal or trivial, such as the image taken to advertise a retailer of gas fixtures, French clocks, and fine bronze that isn’t even artistically impressive for a commercial work. Mirroring Muybridge’s own sojourns, the exhibit zigzags from allegorical fancies to government surveying work to contract projects for rich patrons to architectural images to documentary work at a coffee plantation.
Meanwhile, the exhibit devotes too much space to stereo cards, the early 3-D souvenir images that can be impressive when seen through the appropriate viewer but which prove underwhelming despite the clever but balky spectacles curators have provided. Seen in 2-D, these stereographs are too small and murky compared to the much larger and more lavish images nearby.
Things belatedly improve once the exhibit transitions to Muybridge’s stop-motion work. Using an ingenious, self-designed battery of linked cameras, Muybridge famously became the first to photograph a running horse. His technique took a while to perfect—an early version required a professional retoucher to re-create the photograph for popular consumption—but the eventual results are almost as stunning today as they were in the 1870s and 1880s. In one series, it takes a seemingly endless succession of 18 frames before a horse completes a jump over an obstacle. It’s hard not to be thrilled when, looking at another image of a racing horse, you finally spot the split-second frame when all four of the horse’s legs simultaneously leave the ground.
Ultimately, for his pièce de résistance “Animal Locomotion,” Muybridge produced 781 plates from 20,000 images. He was hampered by the prevailing mores of the time: The book produced from his work had to be published under the name of a credentialed scientist, essentially reducing his work to nothing more than a hired hand’s. Muybridge may not have helped his case by killing his wife’s lover, an act for which he somehow managed to be acquitted in a sensational trial. Despite this heinous act—which the exhibit neither ignores nor dwells on—history has treated Muybridge’s art more favorably than did the scientific hierarchy of the day. His work has become familiar and has been referenced by a long list of admirers from Marcel Duchamp to David Byrne .
For the most part, this modern -day respect is deserved. Especially graceful and timeless are Muybridge’s images of birds flying and greyhounds running (the latter is a dead ringer for the classic Greyhound Bus logo). Many other series feature human models in various degrees of nudity. Of these, the boxing, fencing, and acrobatic tableaux are especially artful, and when water is thrown into the air, it traces patterns that were unseen at the time and are still striking today.
Other series, it should be said, are more than a little ridiculous: a man doffing his hat, a child bringing mom a bouquet, one woman handing another a cup of coffee. These point to a key shortcoming of the exhibit—its failure to communicate Muybridge’s purpose. The venue is an art museum, and not a hall of science, but it’s unclear that Muybridge conceived his work purely as art. Yet how could it have been science, when Muybridge wasn’t granted minimal respect as a scientist? For that matter, it’s hard to imagine any scientific purpose that would be served by a slow-mo sequence of man holding a whip leading a pig on a leash.
Perhaps it’s best to consider Muybridge a visionary whose not-fully-realized notions were carried to completion by subsequent generations. The brief motion pictures created from his images, despite the vast technological advances of the past 130 years, retain their power to amaze. (The latter-day revival of stop-motion animation, in such works as Nick Park ’s Wallace and Gromit series and Wes Anderson ’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, helps provide a helpful, straight-line connection). While the exhibit sadly lacks a working zoetrope—a simple, spinning device that could have animated Muybridge’s images—it does include one of his original zoopraxiscopes, a more advanced device he created that is the forerunner of the film projector. It also includes a selection of flat, circular plates to be played in the zoopraxiscope, which, especially when they show athletes or women in flowing dresses, have the uncanny look of Greek pottery.
The exhibit’s coda features later artists who carried on Muybridge’s vision. While this side exhibit is far from comprehensive, it’s more effective than a similar effort at the recent Smithsonian American Art Museum retrospective for Muybridge’s contemporary, Timothy O’Sullivan . The stable of Muybridge successors includes Mark Klett (with a 1990 rephotograph of Muybridge’s San Francisco panorama), Ed Ruscha (with his 27-foot-long fold-out book Every Building on the Sunset Strip), William Christenberry (with a 30-year time-lapse portrait of the tumbledown Coleman’s Café in rural Alabama), and, naturally, Harold Edgerton (with a sampling of stroboscopic images, including his celebrated photograph of a bullet popping a sequence of three balloons).
Despite the flaws of “Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change,” it’s hard not to get a historical frisson from it. Not only do its best works remain strikingly fresh today, but the exhibit is quietly underscored by its location. In 1887, the Corcoran purchased an extensive series of Muybridge’s images for $600, and that collection has been used by art students ever since. Whatever Muybridge believed the purpose of his work to be—a scientific project, an artistic quest, or simply a source of income—one has to believe he’d be pleased to see his work used by students more than a century after his death.