Hustler, mad scientist, murderer: who was the real Eadweard Muybridge?

·11 min read
The Horse in Motion by Eadweard Muybridge - Library of Congress
The Horse in Motion by Eadweard Muybridge - Library of Congress

How do you film a UFO? It’s a tricky business. They’re fast and peskily elusive: flitting across the skyline or pretending to be clouds. The one haunting the Californian ranch of the OJ and Emerald – played by Keke Palmer and Daniel Kaluuya – in Jordan Peele’s sci-fi horror Nope, is especially camera-shy. It jams electronics, so their fancy security cameras are useless. But they have a secret weapon: an analogue, hand-cranked camera. It gets them the impossible: an extraterrestrial on film, “the Oprah shot” – their ticket to the big time.

Eadweard Muybridge also dealt in the impossible. A hundred years ago or so, not far from the Agua Dulce valley where Nope is set, the pioneering photographer captured something just as ground-breaking as Peele’s alien. It wasn’t ET, but another animal in flight: a horse at full gallop, with all four legs in the air. At the time, artists depicted horses in motion with their legs splayed out like a rocking pony. But did all four legs leave the ground at the same time? Until Muybridge, no one knew for sure.

A showman, inventor, moving-picture pioneer, Muybridge is the presiding spirit of Peele’s antic film, which, like Get Out (2017) and Us (2019), is as much a nimble, blood-soaked satire of the entertainment industry as it is a savagely entertaining genre flick. In fact, Muybridge is referenced throughout: his motion picture study of a jockey on a horse leads us into the title sequence, and he is referred to by name several times.

This is fitting for, if Peele’s film shows us the desiccated state of the American dream today, then Muybridge was one its earliest devotees. He embodies the white heat of California in the late 1800s, the last frontier of a nation busily inventing itself. But he also exemplified its shadows, too. A compulsive self-promoter, he was an abrasive narcissist and possibly brain-damaged. He was also a self-confessed murderer, who alienated his supporters and died in obscurity.

Muybridge’s contemporaries accused him of faking his photographs of horses. But his patron, the railway baron Leland Stanford – one of the most powerful men in America, who would give his name to the university – was delighted. Hugely wealthy, he owned the largest stud farm in the States, and for nearly a decade he put his men and thoroughbreds at Muybridge’s disposal to try to prove his theory about horses galloping. His investment proved shrewd. The eccentric photographer’s experiments gave birth to cinema – and fired the starting gun on the modern age.

“Muybridge is the beginning of now,” says Marc Shaffer, director of the documentary Exposing Muybridge, one of a clutch of recent projects about the once-unsung photographer. “His life story plays out like a prequel to our own time. He’s not an historical curiosity. We live in a time of dramatic technological change, a machine age – one that Muybridge helped bring about.”

Muybridge never decided exactly who he was. He changed his name six times, including to “Helios”, the Greek apotheosis of the sun, and his eventual formulation “Eadweard” was chosen as tribute to an Anglo-Saxon king. But he was born Edward James Muggeridge in 1830 in Kingston-upon-Thames to a lower-middle class family who ran a shipping business. From a young age, he had sights on wider horizons than a life of coal barges and grain cargos. Aged 20, he shipped to America to make his fortune. “I’m going to make a name for myself. If I fail, you’ll never hear from me again,” he wrote to his mother, his flair for melodrama and reinvention already running hot.

He washed up in New York, then travelled overland to San Francisco. Then, the capital of the West Coast was a beguiling mixture of sophistication and frontier lawlessness, its population exploding in the years following Muybridge’s arrival as gold was discovered in the nearby Sierra Nevada mountains. Muybridge set himself up as a bookseller, businessman and investor – a life of tidy prosperity not so different from the stifling existence he had fled in England.

That changed in 1860 when, aged 30, he sold his interests to his brother and announced his plans to roam Europe. He didn’t get much further than the Texas border. The stagecoach he was travelling in lost control and crashed, killing two passengers. Muybridge was thrown clear, smashing his head. When he awoke from a coma nine days later, he claimed to have no memory of the trip. He had to learn to walk again, taking months to fully recover – but his close associates said he had changed. He was short-tempered, irritable and impetuous; he sported threadbare clothes and cultivated a magnificent beard: Methuselah dressed as Charlie Chaplin's tramp.

A man running by Eadweard Muybridge - Library of Congress
A man running by Eadweard Muybridge - Library of Congress

Another reinvention. Muybridge became “Helios”, landscape photographer, who, with his “flying studio”, rattled through the landscapes of the American West, capturing images of some of its most spectacular features – Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, the Pacific ocean – for a public greedy for its freshly-minted wonders. Each photograph was an expedition: exposures were made on “wet plates” of glass, washed with highly volatile chemicals. At best, a stumble would mean a shattered film, at worst, an explosion. Muybridge wrestled with adverse weather and uncooperative scenery, carefully ferrying the plates to a mobile dark-room drawn by a pony.

“He was a self-inventor, a kind of hustler,” argues Edward Ball, author of The Inventor and The Tycoon, a biography of Muybridge and Leland Stanford. “But when he discovered photography, he seemed to have achieved a kind of peace.”

His photographs are busy, chaotic and witty, smuggling in small human figures which are wryly dwarfed by their majestic surroundings. Usually, they have their backs to the audience, staring off towards the horizon; often, Muybridge shot himself – no one else was prepared to face the risks he took to get the perfect image. In person and product, Muybridge sold the rugged mythology of the West.

Muybridge’s shot of Point Reyes Light House, Yosemite - Library of Congress
Muybridge’s shot of Point Reyes Light House, Yosemite - Library of Congress

He also sold lies. A century before Photoshop, Muybridge was a master of post-production. His pictures are collages, reusing favourite elements. (He had a penchant for particular cloud formations, employing them again and again – something that Nope, where the UFO cloaks itself as an unmoving cloud hovering malevolently over the valley, riffs on.) Commissioned by the US Army to record their campaign against the Modoc Indians, Muybridge showed his resourcefulness. Unable to get near the frontlines with his bulky camera equipment, he simply posed one of the Army’s own Indian scouts. The resulting image – “Modoc brave on the warpath” – ran prominently in Harper’s Magazine, a defining depiction of the war.

Nope, too, has a playful relationship to historical truth. In an early scene, Keke Palmer’s hustling character delivers a spiel about a black jockey shown in one of Muybridge’s early moving picture experiments. It shows, she says, her great-great-great-grandfather: “The first jockey, stunt-man and star. So since the moment pictures could move, we had skin in the game.”

In reality, this sequence was taken a decade after Muybridge first began experimenting with moving images, and we do not know the name of the jockey. “With Muybridge’s photos, you can’t know exactly what you’re seeing,” notes Shaffer. “He treated reality like it was a ball of clay.”

Daniel Kaluuya as OJ in Nope - Universal Studios
Daniel Kaluuya as OJ in Nope - Universal Studios

Muybridge’s greatest act, though, was his mid-life bid for respectability. In his forties, he married Flora Shallcross Stone, who was in her early 20s, and installed her in a townhouse in San Francisco – before abandoning her for his months-long photography expeditions. Lonely and bored, she began an affair with a prosperous young British man, Colonel Harry Larkyns, who was working as a gold prospector. Muybridge may have known about their relationship, but did not realise its seriousness until he returned home to find a photograph of his son, one of the few in the house not taken by him. Inscribed on its back was: “For little Harry.”

Furious, he rode through the night to Larkyns’s encampment near Calistoga. He hammered on Larkyns’s door and, bleary-eyed, Larkyns answered. “I have a message for you from my wife,” Muybridge said. And shot Larkyns dead.

The trial was a sensation. Stanford hired the best defence lawyers on Muybridge’s behalf.  They tried several tactics to get him off the hook. First, they suggested he was insane: Muybridge filed a dramatic description of his stage-coach accident, and the jury were presented with one of his own photographs as proof of madness – an image of him peering over the ledge of a rock, jutting precariously out into the Yosemite canyon, a 2,000ft drop below.

This argument didn’t wash. But their next ruse did. The defence argued that Larkyn’s murder was a “crime of passion” – a common defence in the West where women were few, and slights (and guns) plentiful. The jury acquitted Muybridge. Flora filed for divorce on the grounds of extreme cruelty; she died six months later. Muybridge placed his son in an orphanage, and took off again on his adventures.

By the late 1870s, Muybridge was famous, his experiments on Stanford’s estate breathlessly written up in the press. (Most newspaper articles didn’t carry bylines, so Muybridge may have drafted some himself.) Yet his breakthroughs were extraordinary: he devised a system of mechanically-operated cameras which could capture, for instance, a horse speeding past. He strung these still images together in sequence and, using a device he called a “zoopraxiscope”, he projected them, creating jerky, stop-motion moving pictures. It was the dawn of cinema. “The miracle and magic of cinema is that you capture time,” says Ball. “You can replay experience. And Muybridge was the first person to do that.”

Muybridge embarked on an unflagging lecture tour, showcasing his discoveries across America. He travelled to Europe, where he lectured at the Royal Institute and overawed the future King Edward VII. But success soured his relationship with Stanford, and in 1882 his erstwhile patron published The Horse in Motion, which used 100 of Muybridge’s images without crediting him. Worse, when Muybridge applied to join the Royal Society, his application was blocked. Citing Stanford’s book as evidence, the Society accused him of plagiarism. Stung, he tried to sue Stanford. He failed.

Five years later, Muybridge’s luck improved. After a lecture at the University of Pennsylvania, its provost, William Pepper, offered him sponsorship to continue his studies. Working in a purpose-built outdoor studio, he captured a remarkable pageant of moving pictures. These included assemblages of athletes running, wrestling and playing tennis balls, as well as studies of disabled patients from the nearby medical school.

But he also filmed less impeccably scientific subjects: Buster Keaton-esque skits of men in top hats leap-frogging each other, women in the nude drinking from tea sets and – in a teasing suggestion of early erotica – coquettishly throwing buckets of water over one another. Muybridge the mischievous impresario was never far from the surface.

Towards the end of his life, Muybridge published two best-selling collections of these studies, Animals in Motion (1899) and The Human Figure in Motion (1901). “We live in an age of image saturation, swimming in pictures, from the moment of our birth to our deathbeds,” says Ball. “That stream begins with Muybridge.”

Eadweard Muybridge c 1899 - Corbis via Getty
Eadweard Muybridge c 1899 - Corbis via Getty

Time, though, rushed on. And Muybridge was being left behind. Attendance at his lectures dwindled as his audience moved on to new wonders, such as the Lumière brothers who, in the mid-1890s, began to showcase the first true motion pictures. At the Chicago World Fair in 1893, Muybridge demonstrated his zoopraxiscope studies of animals to a paying audience – the world’s first cinema. But his offerings were overshadowed by the go-go dancers down the hall. Shortly after, he settled his affairs in America and retired to Kingston-upon-Thames, the small town he had been so desperate to escape half a century before.

He died in 1904 of prostate cancer. He collapsed in his cousin’s garden – he was said to have been constructing a scale of America’s great lakes, keeling over while digging out New York state. At the time of his death, Muybridge was largely forgotten. But since then, his work has inspired artists as diverse as David Hockney, Lucian Freud and Marcel Duchamp, as well as the composer Philip Glass who based an opera, The Photographer, on his life. The actor Gary Oldman is a fan too; in fact, he’s one of the main talking heads in Shaffer’s documentary. Clearly, he’s itching to play the maverick Victorian.

For as groundbreaking as his technical achievements were, what impresses most about Muybridge is the man himself. Determined to be the lead in his own self-fashioned story, Muybridge seems an uneasy bridge between his time and our own. To my eye, he never took a better self-portrait than that daredevil pose in Yosemite: heedless of his safety, he is stretched out full-length, teetering towards an unknown future. Staring down the impossible.