30 Aug, 2010
Muybridge at Tate Britain
Posted by: admin In: Guardian
Whether showing us what water droplets look like when hurled from a bucket, or revealing the slow, destructive hand of nature, Eadweard Muybridge almost magically made time visible in space, as a new show at Tate Britain will reveal
David Hockney once complained that photography was a paltry art because its angle on the world is restricted to what the camera sees at the moment of exposure: unlike painting, a photograph can make no space for time. Tate Britain’s massive and magnificent forthcoming exhibition of Eadweard Muybridge’s work will prove Hockney wrong. Combining artistic vision with scientific analysis, Muybridge showed how an image that paralyses motion can catch the fluency of phenomena. He was one of the great photographic thinkers, whose mind reached ahead from still photography towards the inevitable invention of the cinema, which he anticipated by constructing a gadget called a zoopraxiscope that could animate sequences of images to display mules kicking or nymphs dancing.
Despite his scientific skills, he enjoyed the esoteric mystery of his new medium. Photography writes with light, and in homage to the Greek sun-god Muybridge called himself Helios; the emblem on the business card attached wings to his camera and made it radiate beams, as if the sun were housed in the dark interior of his “Flying Studio”. But the would-be deity was also a shrewd faker, a sly self-inventor – he was born, a little too drably for his own taste, as Edward Muggeridge in Kingston upon Thames – and a busy self-promoter. In between photographic expeditions in the Californian wilderness, Panama and Guatemala, lecture tours of Europe, and experimental sessions to study the movement of trotting ponies, galloping horses and skittish deer, he even managed to commit a murder.
Muybridge’s great achievement was conceptual: he made time visible in space. His studies of locomotion atomise duration into instants. He demonstrates, for instance, what water looks like, second by second, as it is hurled from a bucket by a bizarrely naked female model. With a battery of cameras tripped by electrical switches he captures minute metamorphoses too quick for the blinking human eye. What we see as a sloppy, slurping mess is a rainbow of gravity-defying droplets, then a looped ribbon that twists around itself, next a leaping fish or a slippery mermaid. He seems to have trapped a spirit, compelling wet ectoplasm to solidify in the air – and of course, like many of his Victorian contemporaries, he could do that as well: when photographing the house of a Californian patron, he included the double-exposed ghost of the owner, patrolling the premises to keep an eye on his wife.
Time is a stream, flowing around us and through us, incising lines on faces as it abrades rocks. Almost magically, Muybridge devised ways of enabling us to see that stealthy entropy at work in nature. Time is written into the sedimentary layers of the cliffs he photographed, or computed in the rings of the inconceivably ancient and enormous Californian sequoias. The grandiose vistas he photographed in Yosemite are not only sublime evidence of God’s grandeur or America’s glory, like the same scenes when looked at through the cameras of Carleton Watkins and Ansel Adams. Muybridge emphasises the destructive and creative power of water, which over millennia carves tracks through mountains. A lake can pretend to be a placid camera, duplicating and inverting the mountains of Yosemite, but in other moods water is aggressive, able to sculpt stone. Muybridge’s long exposures make waterfalls or surging creeks look like sharpened wedges or blunt-ended mallets, weapons that enforce geological flux.
His analytical eye watches for fault lines and fissures, like the sliver a thousand feet deep that cracks apart Eagle Rock. In his studies of the jagged Californian coast he traces the tectonic rift that will eventually unzip the state and send it drifting out into the ocean. The man perched on the edge of a boulder above a dizzy drop in Contemplation Rock, Glacier Point doesn’t look at all contemplative. He is less a mystic than a Nietzschean superman, anxious to discover whether he can vault over the crevasse; he seems to be about to swing himself out into the void, to test whether the empty air will serve as a trampoline. Muybridge was a daredevil who had himself lowered over precipices by ropes, and ventured on to escarpments where his team of pack-carriers refused to follow.
He followed the advance of the railways that abbreviated time and conquered space as they unified America, but he knew that these technological changes had been anticipated, with epochal gradualness, by nature itself. A glacier in Yosemite, its tracery sharply focused though seen from a remote height, is as implacably regular as the steel tracks being laid by the Union Pacific engineers. Like the railwaymen, Muybridge ignored ecological niceties. He had trees chopped down to improve his sightlines, and occasionally included an axe in the photographs as a token of his interference; developing the negatives, he even moved boulders around for aesthetic effect.
The spoils of this war between culture and nature were heaped up on the hills of San Francisco. Muybridge, appraising the place, was of course not content with partial views. In 1878, positioned on the exclusive summit of Nob Hill, where the railway magnates and goldmine owners had their mansions, he set up a camera that was itself a small skyscraper – a wooden box on a tripod that had to be stabilised to resist the high winds, with heavy, fearfully fragile glass plates fitted inside it – and photographed the whole of the city that sprawled below. The overlapping exposures of his panorama took him a day to complete; laid end to end, they flatten the circular view into a strip that measures more than 17 feet.
Once again, time is included – the time it took Muybridge to piece the gigantic amalgam together, computed by the difference between the sharp noon light of the first plates and the mistier, more diffuse atmosphere of the final ones, and the time it takes our own eyes to saunter down all the diverging streets that lunge into the bay and to take soaring inventory of the shacks, the steeples, the boxy utilitarian offices, the masts of the ships in the harbour and the uncountable industrial chimneys. The time spent building this improbable, precarious place – soon to be toppled by an earthquake, razed by a fire and then built up again – is also made manifest. You can see urban history happening, just as Muybridge lets you see water cavorting as it flies through the air. A house like a shoddy wooden crate inside a paling fence abuts on one of the plutocratic palaces; pavements alternate with dusty stretches of unmade road. A vacant lot is a reminder of unspoiled nature, until you notice that it has been rudely sliced open on one side to be used as a quarry. The rails for the first cable car, its underground tackle of haulage wires holding together the slithery slope of California Street, announce technology’s final assault on this arduous terrain.
All the same, every line of perspective you follow ends in vacuity: glassy water, the depopulated hills across the bay, the milky, featureless sky. And this is a city whose citizens, literally the victims of their own mobility, have blurred into spectres during the exposure. A disembodied eye surveys a depopulated world. In Yosemite we see the world as it was at the beginning; in San Francisco we see the world as it might be after the end.
Muybridge’s work can be, as it is here, spectacularly terrifying. On other occasions – as when he gets a woman costumed as a Greek nymph to walk endlessly up and down stairs holding a teacup so that he can study the locomotive processes involved, or persuades wrestlers to mime sodomy in a set of images that predictably fascinated Francis Bacon – he is either whimsical or frankly weird. His odd self-portraits suggest something of his strangeness. In one he pretends to be harmlessly dozing in an art gallery; in another he appears, abstractly reshaped into a black lump, in a reflecting globe set up in an amusement park. He performed for his own locomotion studies, dressed only in underpants despite his sagacious white beard: imagine Moses exercising at the gym.
Most unsettling of all is a portrait by a colleague in which Muybridge hunches, scowling with paranoia, at the base of a patriarchal sequoia, apparently ready to wriggle into a cavity between its roots. Here the man who wielded the axe resembles a potential axe murderer, and in 1874 he did indeed gun down his wife’s lover. Placed on trial for murder, he first pleaded insanity, then allowed his lawyer to admit his guilt while entreating the jury “to send him forth free to resume that profession which is now his only love”. Art, luckily, mattered more than the piddling strictures of the law, and Muybridge was acquitted. Everyone who goes to the Tate exhibition will be grateful for the miscarriage of justice.
Eadweard Muybridge opens at Tate Britain, London, on 8 Sept, and runs until 16 Jan. The Observer is media partner. Extra, the Guardian and Observer’s membership scheme, is hosting an exclusive private view of the exhibition on the evening of 14 Sept. Members can apply to win one of 100 pairs of tickets at guardian.co.uk/extra (closing date 5 Sept).
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