photo & text by nacrowe
with the advent of the INTERNET, AUTOMATION, SOCIAL MEDIA and the future of promise of ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE right around the corner, i can honestly attest that in my short lifetime there has been much SOCIAL DISRUPTION and POLITICAL UPHEAVAL that has come at the expense of an UNPRECEDENTED rate of TECHNOLOGICAL INNOVATION. in essence the world i grew up in no longer exists.
in essence the late 19th century in the UNITED STATES represents a similar pivot away from old methods of traveling and communicating with the completion of the TRANSCONTINENTAL RAILROAD and the advent of massive STEAMSHIPS, TELEPHONES, INCANDESCENT LIGH BULB and the PHOTOGRAPH. growing up in ENGLAND in a world with horse-drawn carriages and gas street lamps to that of ELECTRIC GRID-ENABLED CABLE CARS and STREET LIGHTS is quite REMARKABLE and represents a psychic jolt as well as TECHNOLOGICAL CHANGE. it means that the manner in which people lived and thought of themselves shifted arguably for the first time in generations.
what makes the EXPOSING MUYBRIDGE (INSIDE OUT MEDIA, 2021) documentary about the FAMOUS PHOTOGRAPHER is how his life and career provides a familiar example of the apparent disconnect between the OPTIMISTIC PROMISE of TECHNOLOGY and its DESTRUCTIVE CAPACITY to alienate us from ourselves. EADWEARD MUYBRIDGE only became a PHOTOGRAPHER after years spent occupying various modest occupations in the new AMERICAN WEST after departing ENGLAND at first opportunity. his early adoption of the cumbersome TECHNOLOGY found him shooting lots of shots of nature throughout the MOUNTAIN WEST and PACIFIC NORTHWEST as well as the recently purchased ALASKAN TERRITORY and many of his locations were later REPHOTOGRAPHED by the likes of EDWARD WESTON and ANSEL ADAMS more than a half century later. one of his quirks was having figures in the foreground, sometimes to showcase scale, and often such showcased himself in precarious positions on cliffs with sheer drops and the like. but often these PHOTOGRAPHS were MANIPULATED with preferred (and reused) cloud formations and drawn distant mountain ranges. seeing was not believing, even at this early FORMATIVE state in the evolution of PHOTOGRAPHY.
MUYBRIDGE himself had an IDIOSYNCRATIC and highly ERRATIC personality. in his forties he married a young woman in her twenties whom he subsequently ABANDONED at home while he went on PHOTOGRAPHY trips at the behest of clients (including war propaganda photos for the government and family portraits for captains of industry like railroad magnate LELAND STANFORD). after learning of an insinuation that he was CUCKOLDED in his absence, MUYBRIDGE sought out his wife's reported amour and shot him dead point blank. controversially he was found not guilty. post-trial he went to CENTRAL AMERICA and took ETHNOGRAPHIC and NATURE PHOTOGRAPHS around the region. on his arrival back in CALIFORNIA he worked with STANFORD on a problem of providing UNDENIABLE PHOTOGRAPHIC proof that a horse had all of its hooves in the air at the same time. this proved DIFFICULT given the REDIMENTARY CAMERA TECHNOLOGY the time and the non-existence of things like shutters that allow for very short exposure periods and chemical concoctions that allowed for such. MUYBRIDGE was able to make it work and prove that such existed with an array of PHOTOGRAPHS taken in succession by separate CAMERAS with quick shutters that showed the change in position of the horse over time. this was REVOLUTIONARY and the basis for MUYBRIDGE's subsequent fame. but STANFORD took credit and largely DISCREDITED him as a mere TECHNICIAN in a subsequent publication, effectively ruining MUYBRIDGE's reputation, who had became something an early celebrity at the time.
his work was picked up a few years later by the UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA, in spite of his reputation as a MURDERER and an ERRATIC, who allowed him to conduct his "motion studies" at the behest of a committee of ZOOLOGISTS, PHYSICISTS, ANATOMISTS, and ARTISTS that hoped to gain insight into the invisible world of kinetic mechanics. the film goes to great lengths to showcase how these "SCIENTIFIC" studies were marred by INGRAINED CULTURAL BIASES of the period along the lines of RACE, CLASS and GENDER. such was the case that the majority of these scholars were seeking to secure data to prove their racist preconceived notion that WHITE MEN were SUPERIOR to their FEMALE and NON-WHITE counterparts. men are PHOTOGRAPHED performing feats of STRENGTH and ATHLETIC prowess while WOMEN are shown being GRACEFUL or reenacting DOMESTIC pursuits (like sweeping the floor). there are also series utilizing local prostitutes in baldly erotic movements and scenarios. even in this PRE-CINEMA ERA, interestingly the basic BIASES of FILM CULTURE ("stories and sex") were firmly established and entrenched. the MALE GAZE indeed.
MUYBRIDGE died in obscurity, a cultural anachronism during the age of early CINEMA dominated by subsequent ARTISTIC and TECHNOLOGICAL INNOVATION by likes of the LUMIERE BROTHERS and GEORGES MELIES. his MOTION STUDIES, in spite of their embedded PREJUDICES, have proven to be quite INFLUENTIAL to subsequent generations of SCIENTISTS and ARTISTS. everyone from FRANCIS BACON, WILLIAM WEGMAN, DAVID HOCKNEY, SOL LEWITT and even RICKY & MORTY and U2 have explicitly referenced his material.
i found this film to be endlessly FASCINATING given its examination of the DISRUPTIVE POTENTIAL of new TECHNOLOGY and how such leaves the public open to being manipulated en masse. MUYBRIDGE was thoroughly HUMAN with HUBRIS, EGO and IMPERFECTIONS to spare and his adoption and manipulations from a new INVENTION only further the evidence of such. despite such it is hard to argue against the idea the he ELEVATED MANKIND, FLAWS and all, and maybe that is the takeaway from his example. while making us SUSCEPTIBLE to new forms of VISUAL MANIPULATION, his gift to us was making us a little more aware of the HIDDEN realm of MINUTE, RUDIMENTARY PHYSICAL MECHANICS that we all take for granted in a THREE-DIMENSIONAL SPACE and govern and influence our experience of such. in this manner he was an REVOLUTIONARY figure.
EXPOSING MUYBRIDGE is a deeply INTRIGUING film that is most definitely worth checking out. ESSENTIAL even.