Cropped from 'Eadweard Muybridge, Boxing; open-hand.' Plate 340, 1887; collotype; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

SFMOMA's Muybridge Experiments with Time, Space

Max Goldberg March 31, 2011

More than 150 years after Eadweard Muybridge set up shop on Montgomery Street, San Francisco Museum Modern Art is featuring a splendid retrospective of the photographer’s work just a few blocks away. A tireless self-promoter with chutzpah enough to adapt “Helios” as a nom de plume early in his career (this after already having left “Muggeridge” behind in England), Muybridge would surely have been pleased by this showcase. From A Trip Down Market Street to Vertigo, from The Conversation to Side/Walk/Shuttle, San Francisco’s importance as a cinematic landscape is sacrosanct. Less often discussed is the area’s historical role in the development of motion picture delivery systems, from Philo Farnsworth’s early experiments in television to Netflix’s capitalization on web streaming. Either way you look at it, the double helix of representation and technology invariably twists back to Muybridge’s astonishingly varied career. As such, the show at SFMOMA is essential viewing for Bay Area film lovers.

Before continuing in this vein, though, a caveat is in order. The temptation to see cinema’s Big Bang in Muybridge’s motion studies is irresistible, but one does better not jumping to conclusions and allowing the strangeness of his work to register. Describing Muybridge as the father of cinema is misguided: he never worked with the flexible stock necessary for the leap from multiple exposures to continuous filming. Of course Muybridge himself positioned his own work in terms of advancement and anticipation—something he learned, one imagines, from his Manifest Destiny-making patrons—but nonetheless, it may be wise to walk the galleries of the SFMOMA exhibition in reverse order. That way, you see that over his many decades at work he was consistently rearticulating the modern relativity of time and space rather than aiming towards its neat resolution.

It’s this reflexive aspect of Muybridge’s work—the overall impression that instead of striving for self-expression he sought uncanny expressions of perception—that makes him a lodestar for philosophically-minded artists, including avant-garde filmmakers like Ernie Gehr, Hollis Frampton and Thom Andersen. One sees it clearly in the majestic 1878 panorama of San Francisco Muybridge made just before moving on to produce the more iconic images of the horse’s gallop. While the motion study may directly prefigure the film sequence, this epic panorama evokes the qualities we typically mean to infer when we describe a work of art as “cinematic:” a dizzying impression of reality, sweeping space and time into one totality.

It takes real time to traverse Muybridge’s precise relief, photographed in sections from the gilded heights of Nob Hill. If you look carefully, the durationality of the photograph becomes evident in the way the shadows change from panel to panel. The surreal quality of the image results of the deserted streets (because of the long exposure times) and Muybridge’s condensation of a full-rotation landscape as a continuous linear horizon line. Rebecca Solnit helpfully likens the panorama to a flattened animal skin in her book, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West: “A flayed skin can be seen as a single surface as a live animal cannot, but the dimensions of its original form must be reconstructed in the imagination.”

As such, Muybridge directs the eye using lines that refer to something real but within a fabricated configuration (one could do worse for a working definition of cinema). There is also the matter of an intriguing substitution of one of the panorama’s original panels. Solnit writes, “He replaced the view just to the north, plate 7, with a plate made later in the day, creating a clash of shadows in what is otherwise one of the most seamless photographic panoramas of its era.”The switch looks ahead to his tendency to insert non-sequential images into the motion studies for the sake of what a curator calls “narrative clarity”—and back to earlier photographs when he matted billowing clouds over elemental landscapes (the vividness of these clouds was actually one of his first claims to fame). Herein we find suggestive parables for art in the age of mechanical reproduction: greater realism may require fabrication and with the ability to sequence comes the temptation to order.
Variations on the panorama theme can be seen in the adjacent exhibition spaces. There a trio of photographs documenting the construction of City Hall, for instance, one of many such series Muybridge produced. Evidently, he enjoyed the notion that something as ephemeral as a photograph could document deep structural changes. Even more arresting is his 1873 multi-panel spread of an army camp situated at Tule Lake. In the rightward panels, the landscape rises towards the craggy Lava Beds where the Modoc War was being fought against a small band of Indian warriors led by Captain Jack. Muybridge was there in an official capacity: the Modoc War was an early media event, and he was paid to snap the pictures. Given this, it’s surprising that his otherworldly Lava Beds appear not as a triumphal plain, but rather as an existential maze that could well serve as the setting for an Anthony Mann western. But seeing the photographs as they were reproduced on a newspaper page is enough to be chastened by the propagandistic elasticity of narrative-tuned images.

As with much of his earlier landscape work, Muybridge’s Modoc War imagery satisfied an ideologically-shaded desire for pictures of western conquest and virtue, but with an aggressive dynamism tearing against sentimentalism. This is especially true in the monumental Yosemite plates which take up an entire gallery of the SFMOMA show. As has been noted by Solnit and others, Muybridge’s Yosemite is tumultuous and vertiginous where Carleton E. Watkins’ images of the same terrain (on view in a gallery dedicated to Muybridge’s contemporaries) are balanced and becalmed. When one considers the technical difficulty of achieving these large-scale prints in the field, Muybridge’s unorthodox framings seem all the more pointed. In several pictures, the nominal attraction (El Capitan, for example) is upstaged by gnarled trees or the perceptual play of water’s surface. Human figures appear, but always as distant or indistinct elements of the landscape. (Long before Muybridge equated human and animals in the motion studies, his view is distinctly Darwinian.) At times he violates the most basic principles of romantic landscapes: in a stunning shot of a falls (Pi-Wi-Ack. Valley of Yosemite. (Shower of Stars) “Vernal Fall.”), there is no horizon line and no real sense of perspective—only sheer verticality and the dynamic contrast of striated rock and ghostly flow of water resulting of the extended exposure time. The framing intuits a geological truth (the evanescent forces of wind and water forging solid rock), but also serves as an elegant demonstration of the brink of perception Muybridge worked to expose.

When Muybridge finally did arrive at his instantaneous renderings of movement, he had to give up space for the sake of time: the initial flashes of Leland Stanford’s prized racehorse register as eerie silhouettes against white backdrops. Still, it’s amazing how quickly “the times” come into the frame of the motion studies. Muybridge staged countless iterations of social behavior for his cameras: we observe as a man doffs his caps for a passerby and a woman climbs out of bed, as a mother greets her child and a worker wields his pick. We remain easily delighted by the sight of water stopped in midair, the representational offspring of those ethereal falls in the Yosemite series.

Part of what’s striking about these standardized views is that they do not distinguish between public manners, private rituals and technological wonder—divisions that have only become increasingly fuzzy with subsequent encroachments of technology into everyday life. The erotic nature of these pictures—their fleshy nudity, performances of gender, and streaks of sadomasochism—remains deeply odd and not at all easy to put down to titillation. For a deeper look at the encyclopedic quality of the endeavor, be sure to plan your museum visit for the afternoon so you can see the daily 3:00 pm screening of Thom Andersen’s 1975 essay-film, Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer. The digital projection in the classroom-like Koret Visitor Education Center leaves something to be desired, but one remains thankful that SFMOMA is making Andersen’s rarely screened film readily accessible. It presents a broad span of Muybridge’s human subjects, including some of the more frankly disturbing images (an obese woman struggling to stand, a young woman crawling along the floor in the nude) that are left out of the exhibit. Andersen also brings a crucial level of visual insight to the timing of Muybridge’s images, paying as much attention to the gaps between exposures as the pictures themselves.

The fact that Muybridge’s ruthlessly non-personal framings can be related just as easily to Frederick Winslow Taylor’s dissection of human labor as to later developments in high art suggests his unwieldy significance. Muybridge’s human studies blur classical art poses with dubious 19th-century objectivism, just as his Modoc War photographs blended reportage and entertainment. As much as the technological ingenuity, this leveling is precisely what makes his work so unfailingly modern. Muybridge’s multiple exposure system was cumbersome enough to guarantee subsequent innovations, but the original zoopraxiscope on display cannot help but retain a magical aura for the cineaste.

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