The Corcoran Gallery of Art is possibly the best place to see photography in Washington. In the past two years, the museum’s curators have shown us work by artists as wonderful and diverse as William Eggleston, Edward Burtynsky and Richard Avedon. The gallery’s current exhibition, Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change is a comprehensive, thoroughly enjoyable retrospective of Muybridge’s art. Many people know Muybridge as a pioneer of stop-motion photography and moving pictures. Helios shows us that he was also an accomplished artist, documentarian, businessman and all-around eccentric.
Born Edward James Muggeridge in the town of Kingston, near London, the artist changed his name several times throughout his career. As a bookseller in San Francisco in the 1850’s, he went by E. J. Muygridge. As a photographer, he called himself Eadweard Muybridge (a possibly reference to King Eadweard). While documenting life and coffee production in Central America, he christened himself Eduardo Santiago Muybridge. An earthly nomer did not suffice when his work was involved. Muybridge named his business Helios, after the Greek sun god and adopted a winged camera as a logo.
The photographer’s tendency to rename himself was but one aspect of his enduring strangeness. In 1860, Muybridge suffered a serious head injury in a stage coach accident. Friends and acquaintances testified that afterwards, his once pleasant, easy-going personality soured. Muybridge’s head injury formed part of his defense in his 1875 murder trial. Muybridge had married his young assistant, in 1871. After a while, he began to suspect that she was having an affair with theater critic, Harry Larkyns. In 1874, Muybridge found a photograph of the couple’s baby son, on the back of which, his wife had scralled “Little Harry.” Enraged, he tracked down Larkyns and shot him dead. The jury deemed Muybridge’s vengeance justifiable and he was acquitted. The couple’s young son was deposited in an orphanage.
Muybridge’s unpleasant temperament and interpersonal troubles may have contributed to his choice of subject matter. He made very few portraits, prefering to focus on landscapes. When people did factor into his images, they often served allegorical purposes. Muybridge’s awkward and creepy picture of his young pregnant wife is a notable example. The artist posed the poor girl between an animal pelt and an enormous mound of pears, incorporating her into his strange metaphor for Californian fertility. Muybridge also took an interest in photographing indigenous cultures. His images of the Tlingit are some of the earliest photographs of Alaskan natives.
Some of Muybridge’s earliest photographs are of Yosemite. The majority of these pictures are stereoscopic images, or sets of two photographs almost identical but taken at slightly different angles. When viewed through a stereoscope, they converge and appear three dimensional. The Corcoran has supplied viewers with special glasses that duplicate this effect. Muybridge’s landscapes are imbued with 19th century Romanticism and symbolism. He was fascinated by man’s dichotomous relationship with nature. On the one hand, he saw the wilderness as something to be conquered in order for man to progress. On the other, the hugeness of natural forces was a great source of inspiration for him. In a photograph from 1867 titled The Astonished Woodchopper, a awe-struck man holding an axe stands at the base of an enormous Sequoia, contemplating his own smallness.
Documentarian commissions brought Muybridge across the country and to Latin America. In 1868, he traveled to Alaska on a government commission. In an effort to improve public sentiment about the unpopular Alaska purchase, Secretary of State, William Seward had suggested a photogrpaphic survey of the territory. The Alaska photographs show Muybridge’s diversity as an artist. They also foreshadow his later tendency to create staged, sometimes intentionally fabricated scenes in his documentary work. Muybridge did not show his subjects going about their daily business. Instead, he posed large groups of people directly in front of the camera, arranging them according to their social standing. Muybridge’ tendency towards fabrication was brought to an extreme when he was commissioned to document the Modoc War in 1873. The artist found a member of a neighboring tribe who agreed to pose as if he were a Modoc warrior aiming a gun at U.S. soldiers. The image was reproduced in Harpers Bazaare under the caption “Modoc Brave Waiting for a Scout.”
In one of Muybridge’s most compelling projects, the photographer traveled along the West Coast photographing lighthouses for the U.S. government. This project could have been designed for Muybridge. The artist photographed the beautiful structures from multiple angles, concentrating on documenting their structure and wear and tear for his employer while simultaneously creating images of great beauty.
While the artist’s landscape and documentary work were highly regarded at the time, today, he is best remembered for his early experiments in animation. In 1872, the railroad magnate, Leland Stanford commissioned him to take pictures of his celebrated race horse, Occident. The experiment was meant to prove that when horses run, they lift all four legs off the ground. Stanford hoped that by learning about how the animals move, he could breed and train them to be faster. Muybridge’s initial attempts failed and it wasn’t until 1877 that he was able to capture images of Occident trotting.
Muybridge continued his motion experiments in the late 1870s’ and 1880’s. The exhibit includes the only remaining example of a Zoopraxiscope, a machine Muybridge invented by combining a spinning glass disk with a lantern slide projector. Muybridge continued to explore animal motion, and also began to delve into the complexity of human movement. On display are dozens of stills depicting models in the various stages of completing a gesture. Despite the scientific purpose of this experiment, Muybridge could not escape his interest in allegory. Many male subjects complete tasks that Muybridge deemed masculine, such as wrestling or chopping wood. His photographs of women, which to modern eyes are very amusing, depict pretty young ladies, twirling, disciplining children, or sometimes smoking and having a naked girlish hug. A video near the end of the exhibit treats viewers to the animations created by the device.
Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change is a satisfying introduction to the life and work of this colorful man. The exhibition can be seen at The Corcoran in Washington, DC through July 18th.