On this day, a hundred and one years, ago the pioneering photographer Edweard Muybridge died, at the age of seventy four. This week’s picture is a photographic plate entitled Two Men Wrestling, from his eleven-volume work Animal Locomotion. Published in 1887, Muybridge’s magnum opus was an electrophotographic investigation of consecutive phases of animal movement, comprising more than two thousand individual pictures of men, women and animals – “all actively engaged,” in the photographer’s own words, “in walking, galloping, flying, working, playing fighting, dancing, or other actions incidental to everyday life, which illustrate motion and the play of muscles.”
Muybridge was a colourful and volatile character. He was born Edward James Muggeridge, in 1830, at Kingston upon Thames, in Surrey, the son of a corn chandler named John Muggeridge and his wife Susannah. In 1851 he changed his name and emigrated to New York, where he made friends with a daguerrotypist named Silas T. Selleck, who introduced him to photography. Having made a name for himself as a landscape photographer working in the mid-West, Muybridge came to the attention of the Governor of California, Leland Stanford, a great afficionado of racing, who employed him to solve the riddle of whether all four legs of a galloping horse were ever off the ground at the same time. Muybridge used several cameras, lined up beside a race-track at regular intervals, to record the motions of Leland Stanford’s prize trotter, “Occident”. These experiments were interrupted when Muybridge’s wife, Flora Shallcross Stone, a young woman half his age, gave birth to a son whom the photographer believed to have been fathered by the English drama critic and adventurer Harry Larkyns. Muybridge shot his rival dead in a fury. Although he was acquitted at the subsequent trial he judged it politic to spend the next two years taking pictures in Central America for the Pacific Mail Steamship Company. On his return, he patented a drum-like device for presenting his motion photographs sequentially, to create the illusion of actual movement. The Zoopraxiscope, as he called it, was the direct forebear ofcinema.
It was while lecturing in a number of American cities in 1882 and 1883 that Muybridge conceived Animal Locomotion. He issued a printed prospectus for the work, which was enthusiastically supported by William Pepper, provost of the University of Pennsylvania. Pepper called together a committee of the great and good, raised $5,000 from each of them, and installed Muybridge in a purpose-built outdoor studio in the university’s Veterinary Department. This was, in the words of acontemporary eyewitness, “ a fenced space open to the sky. A screen, before which the object moved, reticulated in small squares of two inches and large ones of nineteen, whose network appears on the background of some of the illustrations, faced a ‘battery’ of from 12 to 24 cameras.”
One of Muybridge’s goals, in studying people in movement, was to establish how accurately the great artists of the past had captured the human form in action. Hence his interest in studying “Men… nude or draped … while walking, running, leaping, wrestling…” The subject of male figures wrestling was redolent of the art both of antiquity and the Renaissance, although in late nineteenth-century America working from naked models was still regarded in many quarters as a morally dubious practise. Muybridge’s friend contemporary Thomas Eakins was dismissed from his post at the University of Pennsylvania having his students pose naked. But Muybridge was able to get away with photographing male students nude – as he did to create the picture shown here – because his project had the aura of scientific enquiry about it.
When Animal Locomotion was first published, it was rapturously received, the critic for the Nation proclaiming that “Here we have the naked, absolute fact: here, for the first time, human eyes may see just how the human body moves in the performance of its functions, how backs bend and hips balance and muscles strain and swell. This is not an art, but it is a mine of facts of nature that no artist can afford to neglect.” Muybridge’s work would have a significant impact on art, but not quite in the way envisaged by that writer. His sequential photographs gave rise to the cinema, but they also fuelled the discontent of many modern artists with the single, static viewpoint favoured by traditional academic art and art theory. The innovations of the Cubists and Futurists, who sought to combine many different angles and moments of vision within a single image, certainly owe something to Muybridge.
In the middle years of the twentieth century, his work also became an important sourec of inspiration for Francis bacon, who based one of his most nakedly homoerotic pictures, Two Figures, of 1953 – subsequently purchased by Lucian Freud, who owns it still – on one of the exposures in the plate of Two Men Wrestling. Bacon responded less to Muybridge’s revelations about human movement than to the sexual frisson of two young students grappling with one another, in the supposedly neutral domain of scientific photography. But in creating his own, nakedly erotic version of the image, perhaps he caught a part of the truth about the photographer’s own maverick, bohemian personality. There are few surviving accounts of Muybridge at work, but Thomas Grier, one of the students who assisted him, recalled that he had a penchant for working naked himself while photographing the naked human form. “Muybridge was a peculiar man,” Grier tersely remarked. “He did not give a hang for clothes and we used to have to keep an eye on him in the studio.”