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The Very First Movies



Rob Hardy


We all spend a good portion of our day looking at screens. Before computers and before television, people looked at movies on screens within theaters. What was the first moving image so projected, the grandfather of all the screens we see before us? The images of Eadweard Muybridge were the first. Muybridge's photographs are well known; his projection system less so, and his messy personal life even less. His association with Leland Stanford has been reduced in popular lore to a bet; Stanford bet someone thousands of dollars that at some point during a gallop, a horse's hooves all leave the ground simultaneously, and hired Muybridge to prove it, resulting in the famous split-second pictures that settled the issue. It is all far more complicated than that, for there is no evidence such a bet ever got made. Muybridge's is a great story of collaboration, betrayal, murder, art, science, and commerce, and it all gets a worthy evaluation in The Inventor and the Tycoon: A Gilded Age Murder and the Birth of Moving Pictures (Doubleday) by Edward Ball. Muybridge the inventor turns out to be much more interesting than Stanford the tycoon, but the joint story is essential in understanding how we got started looking at all those screens. 




Muybridge was an Englishman, a wanderer who came to the United States and peddled books, eventually winding up in San Francisco in 1866. He never really left off wandering, and his lack of settling seems to have applied even to his name, which he changed every ten years or so. He was born simply Edward Muggeridge, but went through many names and personas, calling himself Eduardo Santiago during some years, and Helios during others; Helios was a bow to the Sun, the essential helper to all photographers at the time. (Ball uses whatever name Muybridge adopted for the particular period he is writing about in Muybridge's life, and he also lurches backwards and forwards in time; both techniques are disorienting, but appropriate given Muybridge's chameleon-like changes.) He did get training as a photographer and it was the making of him. American landscape photography was just beginning, and Yosemite was what people wanted to see. Mountains, rocks, and pools were the subjects for other photographers, but Muybridge favored moving water, waterfalls and streams. It did not bother him that the long exposures meant that the spray would be a blur, and Ball says this is not a coincidence; it was as if Muybridge from the beginning was experimenting with the capture of time. Similarly, when it was his turn to do a panorama of San Francisco, he did not hurry to get all the images done in quick sequence as other photographers did, but included all the changes of setting Sun and shifting shadows.  




His experiments with time reached their pinnacle with his photographs of galloping horses, and then of humans and other animals in movement. He could not have engaged in such studies without financial help; the equipment he invented was too costly. Few Americans had the financial power of Leland Stanford, who had been made immensely wealthy in his endeavor with others to build the first transcontinental railroad. Stanford was dull; when he got up to make a speech, he never had much to say and people were glad to have him sit down again. He did like spending money on his dinner parties, on his wife's jewels, and on a fabulous mansion (a victim, sadly, of the San Francisco earthquake; Muybridge's photographs are all we have now). He was happiest, though, spending money on his horses. He loved seeing them run, but he wanted to know more, and he thought if he could answer the oft-discussed controversy about all hooves being off the ground, he would give himself a scientific advantage. Stanford first hired Muybridge in 1872 to document his real estate, and while the two did not become friends (it is hard to imagine two more different personalities), they did become cooperative patron and artist. It was Stanford who first wondered if photography might capture what the eye could not, but initially Muybridge was dubious, saying that photography had not yet "arrived at such wonderful perfection as would enable it to depict a trotting horse." However, with Stanford's support, he was willing to investigate.  




By 1873, Muybridge had proved what was grandly known as "the theory of unsupported transit," bringing a horse's motion to a halt when all four feet were clearly aloft. He had stopped motion. After a few years, he did the opposite, making the frozen pictures of a horse move when they were shown sequentially. He did this with his "zoopraxiscope" (the fashion of the times was for fancy names) which projected the pictures on a screen, and the horse seemed to gallop upon it. It seems trivial now, but it astonished those who saw moving pictures for the first time. A reporter wrote, "The effect was precisely that of an animal running." Stanford was so obsessive that to understand the motion further, he bought a skeleton of a horse, and Muybridge carefully arranged the bones in running poses; the effect was that on the screen galloped a skeletal horse. All the time Muybridge was doing such work, his personal life was in chaos. In 1871 he married a woman twenty years his junior and she took a lover named Harry Larkyns. Muybridge deliberately searched out Larkyns, and finding him, shot him to death. The facts of the case were indisputable, since there were witnesses to the shooting, but Muybridge's lawyer harnessed the wild west sentiments of the time, admitting that there was no law that permitted the shooting of a wife's lover, but " or no law, every fiber of a man's frame impels him to instant vengeance, and he will have it, even if hell yawns before him afterward."  




Muybridge was acquitted. The trial was well-publicized, and the acquittal was controversial, but it seems not to have done the killer much damage, and may have elevated him in the eyes of his fellow Californians. Stanford continued to support his photographic experiments, and Muybridge toured the world with his projections. Eventually, showing his essential greed and corruption, Stanford published a book of Muybridge's photographs with no attribution to the man who took them. Then Muybridge became friendly enough with Thomas Edison that he could propose a collaboration on the projection machine. Nothing was to come of the collaboration because Edison would not cooperate; Ball remarks that it would have been better for Muybridge if he had known that Edison had a reputation for "borrowing the work of others and not returning it." Edison's contribution to movies is well known, but the prototypical projection of moving pictures belongs to Muybridge, who, sadly, did not get riches or fame for this innovation. After a life full of incident and accomplishment, he returned in obscurity to his home in England for his inevitable end, and even the mason carved his name wrong on his marker, "Maybridge." Ball urges a new appreciation of Muybridge's contribution to the lives of all of us in a fascinating account of the works of a troubled genius.



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