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Eclectic Pioneer in Photography Connects Art and Science

February 18, 2011

Eadweard Muybridge might have been born and raised in England, but at heart he belongs to the Bay Area.

Like today’s Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Muybridge, the 19th-century photographer who spent much of his professional life in San Francisco, was a great innovator.

He earned several patents for his photographic advances and, most prominently, paved the way for the invention of cinema with his stop-motion images of a galloping horse.

And like the multitudes of misfits who have been flocking to the Bay Area since the Gold Rush in search of a fresh start, Muybridge lived a life of constant artistic reinvention.

He changed his name several times (he was born Edward Muggeridge in 1830 and eventually became Eadweard Muybridge in the 1870s) and brought an aesthetic sensibility to work that ranged across genres, including landscape, survey, war and documentary photography.

“There is always an overlap between science and art in Muybridge’s work,” said Lisa Sutcliffe, the assistant curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where an exhibition devoted to the artist opens Feb. 26. “Even when he was commissioned to make photos by a government or corporate entity, he was thinking about them in an aesthetic way.”

“Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change,” which opened last spring at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington and traveled to London in the fall, connects science and art in the photographer’s work more clearly than ever before.

The retrospective features about 250 images and objects including Muybridge’s only surviving zoopraxiscope, a prototype of the film projector he invented in 1879.

Besides his motion studies of animals, commissioned by the industrialist and horse breeder Leland Stanford, the show includes his photographic surveys of West Coast lighthouses financed by the Lighthouse Board and his photos of the Yosemite Valley made for the viewing pleasure of armchair adventurers.

Muybridge’s animal locomotion work directly influenced Thomas Edison’s invention of the motion picture camera. The painter Francis Bacon used many of Muybridge’s photographs to create his own works. And the visual-effects designer John Gaeta drew on Muybridge’s photographic principles to create the slow-motion sequences in the 1999 movie “The Matrix.”

The exhibition is packed with works that demonstrate the photographer’s dual sensibility.

Muybridge’s 17-foot-long “mammoth plate” panorama of San Francisco, shot in 1878 from the turret of the Mark Hopkins mansion on Nob Hill, is as much a feat of technical wizardry as it is gorgeous. The work makes the buildings of a bygone city leap out at the viewer. To create the image, Muybridge had to set up his camera to expose the 13 unwieldy glass plates necessary for creating a 360-degree view of the city with mathematical precision.

“The panorama is the best photographic record of San Francisco before the 1906 earthquake,” said Philip Brookman, the chief curator at the Corcoran Gallery. “You can see every detail.”

An 1872 photograph titled “Glacier Channels, Valley of the Yosemite” balances scientific questions with an iconoclastic artistic approach.

The streaky glacier channels in the background of the photograph helped 19th-century geologists to better understand the effects of time on the landscape.

At the same time, the picture reveals the aesthetic contrasts between Muybridge’s landscape work and that of contemporaries like Carleton Watkins. While Watkins’s Yosemite photographs combine majesty with approachability, Muybridge makes no effort to tame the wilderness.

In “Glacier Channels, Valley of the Yosemite,” the precipitous angle of the sloping mountainside and dark shadows of the trees suggest calamity and isolation.

“He always did something extraordinary and expressive with his photographs,” said Rebecca Solnit, the author of “River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West.” “They’re always moody, complicated and lonely.”

Muybridge won a patent for the camera mechanism he invented in the making of “Animal Locomotion,” a body of work consisting of 781 plates (a selection will be on display at SFMOMA). The electrical shutter fired so fast that it captured in startling detail images of animals in motion that had formerly appeared in photographs as little more than indistinct blurs.

The work was chiefly conceived as a scientific experiment, but the artistic side of Muybridge shines through.

The subjects of the studies are often funny and surreal, like the sequence in which two smartly dressed men play leapfrog or the series featuring a pair of naked blacksmiths wielding hammers over an anvil.

And in some sequences, like the one depicting a woman carrying a water urn, Muybridge arranges the photographs out of chronological order to heighten the narrative effect.

“He was an artist working with all of the tools at his command,” Mr. Brookman said. “He used art to create documents that technology at that point couldn’t create on its own.”



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