Jump Day, Bellingen Show ground or Edward Muggeridge and the Great Lakes
Aged 22 Muggeridge left England for America, returning as Eadweard Muybridge, photographer and murderer, having changed his name many times.
He took remarkable 360º panoramas of San Francisco, was a war photographer and documented coffee cultivation in South America, Tlingit Native Americans in Alaska, and every lighthouse on the California coast. He converted a light carriage into a portable darkroom but hefted a huge camera to precipitous vantage points. Long before Anselm Adams, his large scale landscapes of Yosemite, using huge 20 by 24 inch plates pioneered by Carleton Watkins, encouraged tourists to experience the grandeur of the West.
But Muybridge is now known for his animal locomotion studies. Leland Stanford, the governor of California, hired Muybridge to settle a bet (though there is no evidence of a bet). Did a horse lift all four feet from the ground at any time when trotting naturally. A row of cameras bought from England with fast shutters developed locally, triggered through trip wires by “Occident”, Stanford’s favourite trotter, took a sequence of exposures down to a 1000th of a second. It was an event, on a summer’s day 1873, a crowd of racing enthusiasts and newspapermen watched beside the track on the Palo Alto Stock Farm. Stanford won the bet; a trotting horse sometimes has all four feet off the ground, even Leornardo and Stubbs got it wrong.
Ernest Meissonier (d. 1891) was master of historical genre painting, a didactic enterprise, he painted huge canvases with convincing detail though largely self-taught. He would buy period clothes from flea markets or have them made up to get authentic details. It took him ten years to paint Napoleon victorious at the Battle of Friedland (‘1807, Friedland’, Metropolitan Museum). He had tracks built on his estate, servants ran beside pushing him along as he sketched a trotting horse. He was one of the most famous men in France and his work sold for more than any other living artist.
After Muybridge, photography held the upper hand in aspirations to documentary evidence with accurate representations of reality. It’s difficult to comprehend the effect photography had at a time when the visual did not overpower, and it is hard to imagine a time when educated people drew, a practice Ruskin recommended. He drew every day before breakfast as practice to see the world. He resented his modern world and thought photography would make the eye too fastidious, and that mechanical devices like the Claude Glass would pervert the artistic vision. Now digital photography and programs like Photoshop have smeared photography’s epistemic status.
That 1873 negative that settled the argument has not been found, but five years later, Muybridge published a series of all kinds of motion from dogs, men and women walking, running, gymnasts wrestling and at nearly 50, naked and bearded, he photographed himself swinging a pick.
“All beard and stetson . . .
he has the queer
obsessive look of Edward Lear.” Alan Ross, ‘Seven Photographers’
Muybridge suffered a head injury in an 1860 stagecoach accident which left him in a coma for days. For months afterwards, he had double vision and couldn’t smell, taste or hear. The injury probably explains his subsequent erratic behaviour, “impatient, nervous, irritable, untidy, easily excited, wavering, and eccentric”. Testimony of this was given in court at his murder trial in 1875, after Muybridge shot dead his wife’s lover, Harry Larkyns, a San Francisco drama critic. The jury rejected an insanity plea but accepted the defence of justifiable homicide.
“If photography is to be discussed on a serious level it must be described in relation to death. It’s true that a photograph is a witness, but a witness of something that is no more.” Roland Barthes, The Grain of the Voice.
In 1888, Muybridge published the comprehensive ‘Animal Locomotion’, 11 volumes of plates showing the movements of animals, birds and humans. He toured showing his art using his inventions, Zoetropes and Praxinoscopes, adding shots of animals, plants, and naked men. He became fascinated by abnormal locomotion, with studies of the ‘amputee walking with crutches’, or the ‘legless boy climbing in and out of a chair’.
“There is cruelty in Muybridge. ‘When you examine the photos carefully [‘Man Performing Contortions from Animal Locomotion’, 1887] you see that the grid before which a whole frieze of human presence and absence is played out is, in fact, like the peripheral fence at the end of a concentration camp. The past is refracted through a future it could not fathom. Who sanctioned these actions? How were they persuaded or coerced into such un-human, inhumane activity?” Mark Wallinger, artist and curator of ‘Russian Linesman’, Haywood Gallery, London, spring 2009.
I saw Wallinger’s show, a display to make you think about art and politics, and culture. I recall the excitement of linking ideas and themes, but can’t find any notes I may have made, the ideas have gone. I am left with vague memories of:
• Robert Hooke’s, ‘Drawing of a Flea’ from Micrographia, 1665. Samuel Pepys was so awed by this best seller that he rushed out to buy a microscope.
• Joseph Beuys, ‘Cosmos and Damian Polished’, 1975 (lithograph of postcards of the towers smeared with show polish, Tate). In the seventies Joseph Beuys renamed the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre, a symbol of capitalist power the world, Cosmos and Damian, after the early Christian twins who were healers and martyrs, and now the patron saints of pharmacists. Linked to a DVD of:
• Philippe Petit, ‘The French High Wire Artist Walks across a Tightrope Suspended Between the World Trade Centre’s Twin Towers, New York, 1974), before that marvellous documentary ‘Man on a Wire’.
• And Wallinger’s polished reflactive metal TARDIS – a magical object from my childhood, as was the 66 World Cup Final, one of the happiest days of my life (I was 11), and where the show’s title comes from.
From the early 1890s moving pictures, cinema, eclipsed the novelty of Muybridge’s Zoetropes, and he returned to Kingston on Thames where he spent his final decade in his garden building a model of the Great Lakes. And today was a beautiful spring day, I saw the first Drongo of spring and heard the first White-throated Gerygone and now an listening to Morton Feldman’s 2nd String Quartet, live on the radio with New York’s Flux Quartet. I am feeling tired and it’s only been going 50 minutes.