Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Horse in Motion, Eadweard Muybridge, ca. 1886

Horse in Motion. Click to enlarge.

Photography collection, Harry Ransom Center.

It may come as a surprise in the twenty-first century to discover that in the 1880s, details of how objects move were unknown. The human eye, unaided, cannot resolve the details of fast motion. Eadweard Muybridge and his experiments with motion photography, such as this series of pictures of a horse's gait helped solve this mystery.

Muybridge's biographical details are colorful. Born Edward Muggeridge in 1830 at Kingston upon Thames, upriver from London, he was unsatisfied with life in this small English town, and by 1850 he had left to make his fortune in the United States. Little is known about him until he arrived in San Francisco, California, five years later. In 1855, the city of San Francisco had been settled only six years prior, and it provided the wide-open possibilities for which the young man was looking. After a short time as a bookseller, and a change to the more striking name by which he is known today, he took up photography from a daguerreotypist and worked for the photographer Carleton Watkins. He made coastal surveys, and soon he had gained renown as a photographer from his spectacular images of Yosemite and Alaska.

His most famous work began in 1872, when he was hired by Leland Stanford (later the founder of Stanford University) to photograph horses. Stanford reputedly had made a bet that for a moment, all four of a racehorse's hooves are off the ground simultaneously, and he hired Muybridge to take the pictures to prove him right. This was difficult to do with the cameras of the time, and the initial experiments produced only indistinct images. The photographer then became distracted when he discovered that his young wife had taken a lover and may even have had their child by him. Muybridge tracked down the lover and shot and killed him. When Muybridge stood trial, he did not deny the killing, but he was nonetheless acquitted. Muybridge left San Francisco and spent two years in Guatemala. On his return, Muybridge resumed his photography of horses in motion, this time far more successfully. He set up a row of cameras with tripwires, each of which would trigger a picture for a split second as the horse ran by. The results settled the debate once and for all: all four hooves do leave the ground at once, as the top middle image in this sequence demonstrates.

Muybridge spent the rest of his career improving his technique, making a huge variety of motion studies, lecturing, and publishing. As a result of his motion studies, he is regarded as one of the fathers of the motion picture. Just as Niépce's First Photograph had, Muybridge's motion studies showed the way to a new art form. At the end of his life, Muybridge returned to England, where he died in 1904.

The window images show a few of the plates from Muybridge's collection Animal Locomotion, held by the Ransom Center. The Center also has a number of individual images by Muybridge in the forms of nitrate negatives, lantern slides, and stereoscopic prints.   —Alan Herbert