Book Review: “Motion Studies” by Rebecca Solnit

A modern animation created from photographs from Muybridge’s “Animal Locomotion”, 1887

This is a book that caught my eye following my recent photography project, Stasis. In that project I made some limited explorations of the relationship between time, space and light, so Motion Studies: Time, Space and Eadweard Muybridge, to give it its full title, seemed like it would be on my current wavelength.

Like me a few weeks ago, you might be vaguely aware of Muybridge as the man who first photographed a trotting horse sharply enough to prove that all four of its legs left the ground simultaneously. You may have heard him called “The Father of Cinema”, because he was the first person to shoot a rapid sequence of images of a moving body, and the first person to reanimate those images on a screen.

Born in Kingston-on-Thames in 1830, Muybridge emigrated to San Francisco in the 1850s where, following a stint as a book seller and a near-fatal accident in a runaway carriage, he took up landscape photography. He shot spectacular views of Yosemite National Park and huge panoramas of his adopted city. In 1872 he was commissioned by the railroad tycoon Leland Stanford to photograph his racehorse Occident in motion. This developed into a vast project for Muybridge over the next decade or so, ultimately encompassing over 100,000 photos of humans and other animals in motion.

Muybridge’s set-up for his early motion studies, 1881. The cameras are in the shed on the left.

Much of his early work was accomplished on mammoth wet plates, 2ft wide, that had to be coated with emulsion just before exposure and developed quickly afterwards, necessitating a travelling darkroom tent. To achieve the quick exposures he needed to show the limbs of a   trotting horse without motion blur, he had to develop new chemistry and – with John Isaacs – a new electromagnetic shutter. The results were so different to anything that had been photographed before, that they were initially met with disbelief in some quarters, particularly amongst painters, who were eventually forced to recognise that they had been incorrectly portraying horse’s legs. Artists still use Muybridge’s motion studies today as references for dynamic anatomy.

“Boys Playing Leapfrog”, 1887

To “track” with the animals in motion, Muybridge used a battery of regularly-spaced cameras, each triggered by the feet of the subject pulling on a wire or thread as they passed. Sometimes he would surround a subject with cameras and trigger them all simultaneously, to get multiple angles on the same moment in time. Does that sound familiar? Yes, Muybridge invented Bullet Time over a century before The Matrix.

Muybridge was not the first person to project images in rapid succession to create the illusion of movement, but he was the first person to display photographed (rather than drawn) images in a such a way, to deconstruct motion and reassemble it elsewhere like a Star Trek transporter. In 1888 Muybridge met with Thomas Edison and discussed collaborating on a system to combine motion pictures with wax cylinder audio recordings, but nothing came of this idea which was decades ahead of its time. The same year, French inventor Louis Le Prince shot Roundhay Garden Scene, the oldest known film. A few years later, Edison patented his movie camera, and the Lumière brothers screened their world-changing Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory. The age of cinema had begun.

From “Animal Locomotion”, 1887

Although Muybridge is the centre of Solnit’s book, there is a huge amount of context. The author’s thesis is that Muybridge represents a turning point, a divider between the world he was born into – a world in which people and information could only travel as fast as they or a horse could walk or run, a world where every town kept its own time, where communities were close-knit and relatively isolated – and the world which innovations like his helped to create – the world of speed, of illusions, of instantaneous global communication, where physical distance is no barrier. Solnit draws a direct line from Muybridge’s dissection of time and Stanford’s dissection of space to the global multimedia village we live in today. Because of all this context, the book feels a little slow to get going, but as the story continues and the threads draw together, the value of it becomes clear, elucidating the meaning and significance of Muybridge’s work.

“Muybridge and Athlete”, circa 1887

I can’t claim to have ever been especially interested in history, but I found the book a fascinating lesson on the American West of the late nineteenth century, as well as a thoughtful analysis of the impact photography and cinematography have had on human culture and society. As usual, I’m reviewing this book a little late (it was first published in 2003!), but I heartily recommend checking it out if you’re at all interested in experimental photography or the origins of cinema.

Book Review: “Motion Studies” by Rebecca Solnit