Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Time Stands Still

An archival venture into photography, from 2004

The Accidental Modernist : Eadweard Muybridge And The Revolutionary Art Of Moving Pictures

by Mark Satola

PHOTOGRAPHY AS AN ART may have been kissed in its cradle by the fairy of inferiority complexes, but the earliest practitioners of the new science were too busy rocketing forward with technical developments to concern themselves with the issue of whether images of the real world, realized in light-sensitive chemicals, were not superior to the brush-and-palette blandishments of painters. The sunlit world beckoned, and they rushed out to meet it, dragging their cumbersome gear and noxious chemicals with them.

Some of that excitement has been recreated in the exhibit "Time Stands Still: Muybridge and the Instantaneous Photography Movement," which opened last weekend at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Nearly 200 rare photographic works, highlighted by Muybridge's groundbreaking motion studies, are on view in the museum's hushed exhibition galleries through May 16.

By the time Eadweard Muybridge landed on the scene in the American West as a landscape photographer of no small vision, photography had already become commonplace, if still something of a novelty. Born in England in 1830, Muybridge had undergone a few interesting personal transformations (including a name change from the less fanciful Edward Muggeridge) before discovering that he had a knack for the infant science and art of photography. He settled in San Francisco and opened a studio there.

Muybridge's beautifully composed landscapes drew the attention of Leland Stanford, former governor of California, U.S. senator and president of the Central Pacific Railroad. The powerful plutocrat had something less than artistic in mind for the photographer, however. As owner of a stable of racehorses in Palo Alto, California, Stanford was interested in studying the gait of his equine properties as they coursed across the turf. The human eye's inability to see just what legs were where at which fleeting moment, Stanford reasoned, would be compensated for by the camera's quick and clinical shutter.

Muybridge set to work devising a system of tripwires and cameras to snap images of a horse as it galloped across the field of view. The resulting sequence of photographs was a success: the true positioning of the horse's legs was revealed -- all four legs off the ground only when curled under the beast's mighty trunk; but more importantly, Muybridge had hit upon a technique, however crude initially, that would through refinement and invention lead to motion pictures. Photography was, as it were, off to the races.

"Time Stands Still" places Muybridge in the historical context of what was called “instantaneous photography,” a phrase that sounds like an oxymoron in our supremely impatient age, when the immediate gratification of point-and-digitize cameras bought off the shelf at Wal-Mart makes waiting an hour for old-fashioned prints seem positively Paleolithic. In the 19th century, taking pictures was a much slower process: photographers had to prepare their own film (usually a glass plate treated on the spot with a wet-collodion formulation), expose it for long minutes and then develop it in the portable darkroom the photographer had to drag along with him, before the chemicals on the plate dried.

The method was not conducive to capturing life as it swept by the eye, and since life would not slow down for them, pioneers of photography worked feverishly to bring their procedures up to life's speed, devising new recipes for faster chemical media and applying them to such notoriously uncooperative moving subjects as ocean waves, street scenes, animals and fidgety children. In “Time Stands Still,” the now-quaint vignettes of these photographers, by themselves unremarkable beyond their historical interest, nevertheless prepare us nicely for the impact of Muybridge's horses, dogs and naked musclemen as they go through their paces before the camera, highlighted before a white-on-black grid that serves to remind us that the first order of business was to study how things moved.

While Muybridge's work may have had initially a scientific basis, others who came after him, known as “chronophotographers,” were more imaginative in their work, sometimes flashing light stroboscopically on a moving subject to produce a multiple image on a single negative (as in the work of Etienne-Jules Marey), and leaving the studio to photograph nature in its unstill glory -- a photographic sequence of storks alighting in their chimney-top nest is particularly exciting. Eventually even Muybridge left the studio grid and took his cameras into the daylight, there to photograph birds, ostriches, deer, dogs, bison, elephants, tigers, baboons and naked people walking, running, jumping, lifting -- in short, being alive.

Muybridge and his fellow chronographers must have ached to be so close to pictures that actually moved. A 1972 reproduction of Muybridge's invention, the zoöpraxiscope -- which you can actually operate in one of the darkened rooms toward the end of the exhibit -- shows how near to movies these early photographers had come, though its image of a cantering horse is so brief as to hardly qualify as a vignette, let alone an actual scene.

A short film, however, running on a continuous loop in an adjacent gallery, gives you a better idea of how close the chronographers were to movies. Based on the sequences in Muybridge's magnum opus, The Attitudes of Animals in Motion , the 10-minute movie was created in 1968 by Canadian moviemaker John Straiton, who simply took the logical step of making the snapshot sequences into moving images, which he then cunningly edited to create the sense of a progressive (if not exactly narrative) arc, set to the coltish ballet music of the Second Empire. The quotidian never seemed so miraculous, as birds fly, animals walk about, and humans do the little things they might normally do in their daily life, albeit quite naked and sometimes with a hint of coy sexuality (a nude woman lolling provocatively in a chair and smoking; two nude woman dancing shyly together).

James Agee, who never met a hyperbole he didn't like, was for once not leaping over the top when he called the camera “the central instrument of our time.” That was in the 1930s, when pictures not only moved with realistic ease but also spoke, when an amateur photographer could load a Leica with 35-millimeter film and take quick snaps of life's fast-moving parade, and when Muybridge and his contemporaries seemed like antediluvian ancestors viewed dimly through the sepia-toned haze of time. Time Stands Still serves to clear the haze and demonstrate, in lively and (literally) moving sequence, the unbreakable connection with our photographic forebears whose work forms the basis of our depicted world.

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times, February 18, 2004.

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