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Eadweard Muybridge: Kingston reclaims photo revolutionary

Man Chasing Goat With Stick
Muybridge's Man Chasing Pig with Stick. Image: Kingston Museum

By Boc Ly
BBC London

In the middle of the 19th century, a young man called Eadweard Muybridge left the outer London suburb of Kingston, where he had been born in 1830, to make his name and seek his fortune in America.

By the time of his death in 1904, also in Kingston, Muybridge was recognised at home and abroad as one of the most pioneering and important photographers of the Victorian age.

This year, Muybridge's work is the subject of a major exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C, and will transfer to Tate Britain in September.

However, the most poignant and fitting tribute to Muybridge will be taking place in the more modest surroundings of Kingston Museum, the local museum to whom he bequeathed over 3,000 objects, providing it with one of the world's most important pre-film, early moving image collections.

A new start

On arrival in the New World, still in his 20s, Eadweard Muybridge started out selling books but soon developed an interest in photography.

Eadweard Muybridge
Muybridge travelled the world giving lectures about his photography and was a great self-publicist.

He was entrepreneurial, eccentric, and obsessive about his work.

On an early trip to America he was involved in a near fatal coach crash that is believed to have left him seeing double.

In 1874 he was tried in San Francisco for the murder of his wife's lover. Muybridge was acquitted on the grounds of "justifiable homicide" and part of his defence cited 'insanity' caused by the coach accident.

America was in a state of flux; there was the coming of the railways and the country's vast and largely untamed topography was developing fast.

Muybridge instinctively understood that photography was the perfect medium for capturing the changing face of America.

Armed with a large camera, Muybridge travelled to places such as Yosemite, Yellowstone and Alaska taking huge panoramic landscape images that were unlike anything seen before.

How horses gallop

Through a mutual acquaintance, Muybridge was introduced to an industrial tycoon called Leland Stanford, a man who would later go on to found Stanford University.

At the time, Stanford was the owner of a race horse farm in Palo Alto, California, and the story goes that Stanford enlisted Muybridge to help him prove the theory of 'unsupported transit' in horses, meaning that all four hooves, at some point, will lift off the ground at the same time when horses gallop.

Muybridge's galloping horses
Muybridge's galloping horses

By setting up his cameras in such a way that captured each phase of a horse's gallop, Muybridge managed to provide, for the first time, conclusive proof of the 'unsupported transit' theory.

The resultant stop-motion images, especially taking into account the basic equipment of the time, were revelatory.

The study of movement

The success of photographing the galloping horses encouraged Muybridge to develop his motion capture techniques further.

Under the auspices of the University of Pennsylvania, Muybridge undertook his greatest project - over 100,000 individual photographs studying human and animal movement.

Using a bank of cameras, Muybridge would take individual photos and arrange them into a composite that would accurately document each phase of a particular movement or activity.

"This is what he is famous for," says Peta Cook, curator of the Kingston Museum.

"Google 'Muybridge' and you will get many examples of his sequence photography. It could be a man tumbling, fencers fighting, or more quirky things, like woman with fan turning around, or man chasing pig with stick."

Muybridge's scrap book
Kingston Museum is in possession of Muybridge's personal scrap book

The Kingston Way

The Muybridge exhibitions in Washington and the Tate Britain are the culmination of four years of research by Philip Brookman, the chief curator at the Corcoran.

Kingston Museum, although it has loaned some items to the larger institutions, is treading its own path.

With the help of a £49,700 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Kingston's Muybridge exhibition will feature some exhibits that will be on public display for the first time.

The centrepiece of Kingston Museum's exhibition will be Muybridge's Zoopraxiscope discs.

The Zoopraxiscope (meaning life, movement and vision) is a machine invented by Muybridge in 1879 and was one of the first moving image projectors in the world. It used specially-designed glass discs derived from his photos to project a moving image.

Kingston owns 69 of the world's remaining 71 zoopraxis discs, and it is hoped a replica machine can be used for the exhibition.

One of Muybridge's zoopraxis discs
One of Muybridge's zoopraxis discs

Reclaiming Muybridge

The enduring of influence of Muybridge's work can still be seen in artists such as Edgar Degas, Marcel Duchamp and Francis Bacon.

He has even been cited as a reference point for Hollywood blockbuster, The Matrix, and a Phillip Glass opera.

Perhaps because he did the bulk of his work in America, Muybridge is not more widely recognised in Britain. It is something that Peta Cook is keen to change.

"He is London born, and he came back and died here, and this is an amazing collection in Kingston. I would like London to have as much pride in Muybridge as the Americans seem to have.

"His work is a key text. It is the biggest ever study into animal and human locomotion that has ever been conducted. You can't get it anywhere else. It is a fascinating legacy."

Muybridge Revolutions at Kingston Museum, 18 Sept - 12 Feb 2011.

Eadweard Muybridge at Tate Britain, 8 Sept - 16 Jan 2011

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