Many people are likely familiar with his most famous photographs, sequential images of a horse galloping that proved that these magnificent creatures did in fact float above the ground, if only for a millisecond. But they are likely less familiar with the man behind those early shots, titled The Horse in Motion: Eadweard Muybridge, a mysterious yet pivotal figure in both the history photography and motion pictures. Exposing Muybridge, a new documentary written and directed by Marc Shaffer, tells his story, from his early days photographing U.S. military conflicts with Native Americans in the West to how he came to revolutionize photography with The Horse in Motion (1878)—and how one patron tried to take all the credit.
In the film’s opening sequences, we hear subjects, historians, photographers, and even actor Gary Oldman, who collects Muybridge’s work, describing the artist. “Duplicitous.” “Tricky.” “A Survivor.” “God, or maybe the devil,” they say. Those are all rather strong characterizations that set up what could be a tantalizing tale of polarizing figure with a dramatic life, but ultimately Muybridge’s personality doesn’t quite come through in Shaffer’s otherwise well-told film.
Born in 1830 in England, Muybridge left his home country at age 20. He was an eccentric who risked his life for dramatic shots. More importantly, he was ambitious: “I am going to make a name for myself. If I fail, you will never hear of me again,” he once wrote to his grandmother.
While the shades of his person might not fully emerge, the film’s focus on his work is superbly done, wrapping his work and his person around an essential early question of photography: Can a camera lie?
In 1873, Leland Stanford—a former governor of California, a railroad baron, and lover and breeder of racehorses—hired Muybridge to do the seemingly impossible of capturing the gait of a galloping horse. Stanford wanted to confirm his hypothesis, through photography, that there was a moment in a horse’s gallop when all four legs were suspended off the ground, curled toward its belly. At the time glass plate photography took several seconds, even minutes, to be capture something, but Stanford tasked Muybridge with capturing life in a fraction of a second.
In a tasteful re-creation, Exposing Muybridge reenacts the innovative, almost scientific set that Muybridge put together. A wall, painted white and slanting toward the sun was set up to reflect as much light as possible, and white, ground lime was also spread across the track. Muybridge had a shack built to house 12 cameras all set up with a special guillotine shutter that he had invented. After much trial and error, The Horse in Motion was made and was met with instant success—and suspicion.
“Muybridge was offering a picture no one had seen before,” Thomas Gunning, a cinema historian, says in the film. “The camera’s possibilities became redefined.”
Together, Muybridge and Stanford went to Europe to bask in the acclaim. But Stanford soon became jealous of Muybridge, who was showcasing another invention, the zoopraxiscope, a rotating disk that projected a moving image of the horse running and was an important precursor to the movie projector. In return, Standford published a book about the movements of animals, using Muybridge’s photos. Instead of sharing the spotlight and highlighting how Muybridge had invented a way to capture images at fractions of the second, Stanford merely listed Muybrigde as a technician on his project. The photographer spent the rest of his life reeling from this betrayal.
Muybridge returned to the U.S. and continued producing various bodies of work, under the aegis of the University of Pennsylvania, including images of even more animals, athletes, and disabled people in what became a comprehensive and expensive study of motion.
The film’s climax comes at the revelation of a little known fact about many of Muybridge’s photographic documentations—they had been edited. His landscapes were doctored to feature extra mountain ranges or particularly pretty clouds, photographs of Native Americans in military conflict with the U.S. were staged, and more. “A camera can’t lie,” Gunning says, “but it can’t tell the truth either.”
In the end, the irony of the Muybridge’s life is that his most accurate work, The Horse in Motion, was the one piece he was accused of misrepresenting. Though that accusation would follow him during his lifetime, Exposing Muybridge looks to proves that Muybridge was a true pioneer of photography and motion pictures—in both fact and fiction.
Exposing Muybridge premiered at DOC NYC and is available to stream online through the festival until November 28.