Eadweard Muybridge and the Horses of Leland Stanford
In his 2013 book, The Inventor and the Tycoon: A Guilded Age Murder and the Birth of Moving Pictures, Edward Ball wrote, somewhat dramatically that “Muybridge, the photographer, killed cooly in a meticulous way, with the expectation that he would die as he killed.” “The mystery that Muybridge carries is that he was a murderer–not an accidental killer, but a cool one, and remorseless.” The characterization is an interesting one, because the “cool” killer motif seems at odds with the brain damaged victim of a stagecoach accident that has been put forward by the historians. By the time Muybridge, the photographer had become Muybridge the killer, the English immigrant was famous and well known to the public. Thanks to his publishers, Bradley and Rulofson, his stunning photographs of Yosemite had amazed armchair travelers with the beauty of unique scenery of the soaring mountains and deep impenetrable forests. It seemed that a new Eden existed in these new territories of America and the images that Muybridge conjured up suggested an almost otherworldly serenity that belied the recent and ongoing forcible removal of the native inhabitants, who were being deprived of their ancestral lands. Having lived years in the new state of California, Muybridge would have been exposed to all manner of violence, from conflicts with understandably angry Native Americans, to the rowdy behavior of a population of adventurous males who had come West, seeking a second chance. It was one of these men, a young and beguiling English refugee from debt, that Muybridge shot without mercy.
Eadweard Muybridge Flora Muybridge
It is an old story: a man marries a woman half his age but refuses to accommodate himself to marriage. Muybridge might have been financially secure but his appearance–wild white hair and long pointed white beard, rough and ready clothes suitable for riding and hiking–was hardly romantic. In the service of his profession, Muybridge insisted on being away from his home for long stretches of time, expecting his young bride to simply carry on without him. And she found companionship with a young man, Harry Larkyns, at one time the drama critic for the San Francisco Post (or the Daily Evening Post, depending upon which source you read), who probably was the father of her child, elaborately named after the photographer and his wife, Flora: Florado Helios Muybridge. But the Moses-like appearance of Muybridge as an old man hid a much younger man, physically fit and apparently fearless, willing to risk his live to photograph from dangerous vantage points. In October 1874, the angry photographer simply pulled out his Smith & Wesson revolver and shot his rival in the heart. His young wife, Flora, later divorced him (ironically) for cruelty, but in the meantime Muybridge was put on trial for murder. The all-male jury decided that the shooting was a justifiable homicide, because a man could get away with murder in those days, if it was a crime of passion and if the lawyer working for you was in the employ of Leland Stanford (1824-1893), former governor of California.
In the end, the only time Muybridge spent in jail was the months he languished while waiting to go to trial. The unfaithful Flora died and the innocent child was put in an orphanage, where he disappeared from history. The entire murder incident became a minor event in the career of Muybridge, bracketed between his ongoing commissions from Stanford, who needed the photographer to settle a bet on how a horse ran. Or to be more precise, Leland Stanford was concerned with the precise positions of a horse’s legs while it was running. Convinced that the camera, even in its primitive state could provide the answer, in 1872 he paid Muybridge, the most famous photographer in California, $25,000 to find a definitive answer to an age-old question–what happened to the legs of a horse at full gallop? Or according to other accounts, Stanford was willing to wager $25,000 with Dr. John D. Isaac on a bet–he was convinced that all four of the horse’s legs were off the ground at some point during the gallop. Others were not sure, after all, the idea of a horse’s hooves being entirely off the ground seemed impossible. The consensus seems to be that Eadweard Muybridge was apparently paid $2000 to do the research with his camera, but this project immediately confronted the primitive and limited nature of cameras and film. Writing in the third person, Muybridge later explained that the wet plate process, as it existed in 1872, was much slower than the dry plate method that was invented later. As Muybridge explained, “Having constructed some special exposing apparatus, and bestowed more the usual care in the preparation of the materials he was accustomed to use for ordinary quick work, the author commenced his investigation on the racetrack at Sacramento, California in May 1872.” In his book, Animals in Motion (1899), Muybridge described at how “a celebrated horse named Occident” was captured “at rates of speed varying from two minutes and twenty-five seconds to two minutes and eighty-seconds per mile.”
Eadweard Muybridge. Occident in Motion (1872)
Muybridge was not forthcoming about the mechanics of his operation at this early stage, but one of the technical problems that had to be solved was the shutter speed. The crude shutter constructed by Muybridge was crafted, according to Hollis Frampton, from a cigar box. Before the 1880s, shutters were rare and were the guillotine type, a simply slide or drop mechanism. Although Matthew Brady had used a shutter, the modern fast shutters emerged only in the 1890s. Photography expert Ernest Purdum noted that, “Bausch & Lomb entered the shutter business in 1890 with their “Iris Diaphragm” a self-diaphragming type.” Most photographers had a lens cap which was simply removed for the desired period of time required for an exposure. What Muybridge needed was technology that did not exist. Lacking fast shutters, lacking fast film and emulsion, Muybridge was considerably hampered, but the images he managed to obtain were sufficient to prove the fact that at a gallop there was a point in time when all four of the horse’s hooves were off the ground. For Stanford these images were important: he was a serious horse breeder and prided himself on training winning horses. The “bet” itself, if it actually existed, was far less important than gaining information about his animals. As any skier knows, if the skies are off the ground, time is lost; therefore, the fact that a horse’s hooves may or may not leave the ground translates into valuable seconds that mean the difference between winning or losing a race. The photographs taken by Muybridge would have to do for a while and an engraving of the photograph that proved that all four legs left the ground at the same time was published, providing valuable information to painters and sculptors alike.
If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.