Muybridge’s Motion Studies

In 1872, on the very same year that he was commissioned by the railroad baron Leland Stanford to photograph Occident — one of Stanford’s prized race horses — in action, Eadweard J. Muybridge married a divorcé named Flora Stone. Muybridge was forty-three and Flora, twenty-one. They were happily married and when Flora became pregnant, Muybridge had no reason to suspect the child was anyone’s but his. But when he discovered a photograph of the child, with an annotation on the back reading “Little Harry,” Muybridge suddenly realized that Flora’s suspected affair with a dandy named Major Harry Larkyns had gone further than he had suspected.

Flying into a rage, he travelled roughly eighty miles to the city of Calistoga in northern Napa County, where Larkyns was staying. Witnesses record him as saying, “Good evening, Major. My name is Muybridge. Here is the answer to the message you sent my wife.” He then shot Larkyns once near the heart. Larkyns died instantly. Muybridge was arrested and tried, but acquitted on grounds that the killing was a justified defense of his family.

Needless to say, his high profile trial delayed his work with Leland Stanford somewhat, but in 1878, he finally succeeded in fulfilling his commission, and became one of the founding fathers of animation. Using a battery of 12 cameras he established, among other things, that a galloping horse does life all four feet off the ground — tucked underneath and not stretched out fore and aft like a running rabbit. Artists had mistakenly depicted otherwise for centuries; George Stubbs, that most famous painter of horses, had guessed that in each stride horses lift all four hooves off the ground at once, but until Muybridge, that had never been proven.

In between his trial and Stanford commission, Muybridge also found time to take photos up and down the Pacific coast for the national body in charge of lighthouses, including a sequence of unusual large-format seascapes completed in the 1870s, at precisely the time that Thomas Stevenson (father of Robert Louis) was designing his lighthouses around the coasts of Scotland. He also took large scale images of Yosemite and San Francisco. Later, Muybridge went on to made other motion studies, including beautiful cyanotype series on people and on animals borrowed from the Philadelphia Zoo for a project titled “Animal Locomotion”.

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