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Eadweard Muybridge: An Eye Over the Abyss

By Stephen Barber.


In the first years of Eadweard Muybridge‘s photographic work, the preoccupation with precipices, peripheral zones and abyss-edges propelled his itinerary, as though the experimentation of his work necessitated journeys to topographical frontiers at which previously habitual forms had expired, and the only way forward would now be via from-scratch innovations that treated existing technologies as scorched-earth detritus. As a result, Muybridge’s eye is always on the originating edge of vision and in interrogative movement, scanning terrains that are themselves in flux and newly-created. Such experiments propel the eye of the viewer or spectator into the precipice through the medium of Muybridge’s eye or those of his figures, and much of the vertiginous unease engendered by his first photographic work emerges from the lack of stable ground supporting the eye’s work, together with the mismatch between Muybridge’s own direct gaze into the void and the spectator’s oscillating gaze, multiplied through sequences. Muybridge operates on borderlines; his work’s traces finally delineate the form of his unique personal Scrapbook, to whose assembly he devoted the final years of his life, in its excessive accumulation of those traces, as a ‘borderline’ artefact, half memory-archive, half book of madness. From one perspective, the Scrapbook amasses triumphs of invention and audiences’ awestruck responses to Muybridge’s decades-long innovations. From another, near-simultaneous, perspective, it forms an overspilling ocular pathology-book comprising reports of near-psychotic self-exposure (as with scrapbooks kept by asylum-incarcerated artists, such as Henry Darger and August Walla), and also a documentational journal of fragments from a sequential disintegration, into the state of oblivion that Muybridge evidently feared, as though his Scrapbook formed an anti-temporal grimoire of press-reports transformed by their obsessive accumulation into magic-spells (spells that then devilishly conjured film), gripped and gathered-up by the ailing Muybridge as he anticipated his own death and worked to negate it through a future transit of his work beyond it. Muybridge’s borderline-mad visual sense, in generating his sequential work and then editing its traces into his Scrapbook, often operates on a tight-rope between rigorously disciplined innovation and unrestrained excess.
Between his journeys to Yosemite Valley in 1867 and 1872, Muybridge undertook his coastal surveys of California, in the form of journeys from end to end of that ‘new’ territory; although it had been inhabited for many millennia, California had become a state of the USA only in September 1850, several months after Muybridge had arrived in New York, after making the sea-crossing from Liverpool, and around five years before he relocated to the opposite coast of that still-expanding country. In 1871, Muybridge secured an official governmental commission to photograph the lighthouses of the Californian coast; he would travel on a survey ship that followed the coast. Many of his images were taken from sites on the coastal land around the lighthouses, after the steamship had landed nearby – in some images, such as those of the cliff-positioned Point Reyes lighthouse, which had begun operating only three or four months earlier, on 1 December 1870, Muybridge climbed with his camera and developing-materials to a vantage point on the cliffs high above the lighthouse, and took images in which the lighthouse itself forms a negligible, half-hidden presence against the ocean, obscured within rock formations; in a further image, he positions the lighthouse more prominently in view, and assigns two figures (his assistants, or the lighthouse-keepers) to look over the precipice, just as he would himself gaze into the void from Glacier Point in the following year. In photographing lighthouses such as that of Point Reyes, Muybridge was seizing images of instruments of vision, which projected flashes of light with a range of twenty-four miles towards receptive eyes for which they provided a vital means of survival, averting wrecks; the lens (which weighed 6,000 pounds) and twenty-four glass prisms of the Point Reyes lighthouse had been made in France by the Fresnel company and shipped directly to Point Reyes. The lighthouse operated by magnifying and intensifying its power of illumination, projecting it in a flash once every five seconds, as though positioned at the origins of an acceleration process which, twenty-five years later, would result in the projection of sixteen frames per second film images.
As well as taking images in sequences from fixed perspectives, Muybridge was evidently ready also to photograph while in motion, from the ship on which he travelled; he had invited the governmental institution which commissioned his work (the California Lighthouse Board) to also request ‘such other views as you may direct of other subjects’. At that first stage in his photographic work, as his self-promotional press-advertisements and brochures of the period indicate, Muybridge was willing to photograph anything – animals, paintings, buildings – so that a gap appears between the chance, undifferentiated nature of the potential subjects of his work (in the sense that he could be commissioned to photograph anything, and would do so), and the distinctive preoccupations and experimental parameters of that task’s accomplishment. That contrary dynamic of intention and chance is present, too, in his Scrapbook, in which Muybridge painstakingly edits-together materials written by journalists who have either obliviously scrambled his experiments in their careless accounts, or have simply replicated Muybridge’s own press-releases. Muybridge determinedly overhauls the mass of chance events that constitutes the residue and detritus of his work, into an intentional form that corresponds as identically as possible to his own future-inflected vision of it.


Muybridge’s promotional brochures for his wide range of commissions, inserted into his Scrapbook as traces of his work, also indicate his openness to track the ongoing transmutations and movements of the terrains whose edges he travelled along. His lighthouse journey along the Californian coast forms a prescient, filmic ‘tracking-shot’ of that new perimeter of the USA. He covered the entire expanse of the state’s coast on that journey, had already travelled along it northwards from San Francisco on a recent journey to Alaska, and would cover the southern stretch again in 1875, travelling to central America after being exonerated for his act of murder. In a sense, his camera exploratively probes the retinal surface of an emergent entity of vision, myth and obsession – that of California – by pinpointing, in particular, the incandescent, originating bursts of light (twelve per minute) from its newly-constructed lighthouses’ lenses. Those lighthouses prefigure the illuminated towers of palatial cinemas, such as those of Los Angeles’ Broadway district, which would project powerful searchlight beams across urban space and into the sky above the city, at film-premieres fifty years later. Photographing from on board ships, in unpredictable motion, presented instructive challenges for Muybridge, providing him with technical insights on which his future work depended; on instigating the second phase of his commission from his patron Stanford in 1877, with the intention of photographing the movement of Stanford’s horses with greater exactitude than on his first attempt several years earlier, Muybridge evoked the salutary demands of photographing from a ship during his coastal journey of 1875. On 3 August 1877, the San Francisco newspaper The Bulletin, evidently reproducing a press-release written by Muybridge himself, reported on his experiments with photographing scenes on shore from a rolling ship, during his central American travels. The experiments had ‘resulted in the construction of an apparatus and the preparation of chemicals so as to permit the photographing in outline of a rapidly moving body’. In this instance, the ship – as the support for the camera – moved erratically, and (contrary to Muybridge’s earlier experiments, on his 1871 lighthouse-journey) the object or figure on the coast was in movement too, like Stanford’s horses; to track and fix that object or figure, the two conflicting forms of movement had to be synchronised, in order to generate a static photographic image that itself emanated movement.
Especially in the first decades of filmmaking, the shooting of sequences in which a moving object was tracked by a camera, itself placed on an unstable moving support, intentionally induced a sense of disorientation or exhilaration for the film’s spectators, as in several sequences in the 1931 film by Edgar G. Ulmer and Robert Siodmak, People on Sunday – a film about journeys taken at speed from the centre of Berlin to leisure-zones on the city’s edge – in which a camera placed on one rapidly moving vehicle abruptly overtakes or is overtaken by another vehicle (and the human figures inside that vehicle) which it is filming; that act of irresistible surpassing propels the spectator’s perception forward, in a sensorially expansive, elating way. Muybridge’s Scrapbook carries a parallel process of forming the expansive outcome of dual, conflictual movements, that together possess a dynamic tension. It was assembled across the decelerating final years of Muybridge’s work, at a moment of unprecedented cultural and technological upheaval and acceleration (encompassing the wide-scale proliferation of film-projection and its public spaces, at the end of the nineteenth century, among other innovations); at the same time, the Scrapbook serves to ‘track’, through its distinctive process of editing, the correspondingly far-reaching, volatile visual upheavals generated by Muybridge’s own body of work, over the preceding decades.
Muybridge’s work in motion, in tracking and visualising the USA’s newly instituted topographical boundaries – simultaneously little-known and vitally defining – through the light-inscribed features of its Californian coastline, forms a counterpoint to his later work in the delineation of new corporeal parameters, of human and animal figures in movement. In order to render those boundaries, Muybridge operates through an ocular and technological approach of limitlessness which allows his work its ability to hold and launch amalgams of apparently contrary and inassimilable elements; at the same time, in its disregarding of limitations, his work always risks disintegration, and is touched by the void, so that its traces veer between memory and oblivion. Both of those phases of Muybridge’s work – the topographical and corporeal – comprise explorations of peripheries, edges and vanishing-points: re-cast and newly activated through their transformation into image-sequences.


Stephen Barber‘s Muybridge: The Eye in Motion will be published by Solar/Chicago University Press in November.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, January 13th, 2012.