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Naked Men, Women Race Through Muybridge Show: Martin Gayford

Shower of Stars
"Pi-Wi-Ack (Shower of Stars), Vernal Fall. 400 Feet Fall, Valley of the Yosemite, No. 29," (1872), an albumen silver print by Eadweard Muybridge. The photograph is included in the exhibition "Eadweard Muybridge" at Tate Britain, until Jan 16. Source: Tate Britain via Bloomberg

“Eadweard” isn’t a bad first name for an eccentric pioneering photographer.

Inventor, murderer and man of action, Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) spent much of the 1880s taking pictures of naked men and women in rapid movement. He was no quiet conformist.

Muybridge is in several ways a suitable choice for an exhibition at Tate Britain. One, he was a notable influence on the painter Francis Bacon; two, Muybridge was British by birth. He hailed from Kingston-Upon-Thames, and was christened Edward Muggeridge (he later changed it to something more romantic, taking “Eadweard” from a local statue of an Anglo-Saxon king).

Most of all, he took marvelous photographs. Here’s the catch: Much of his important work isn’t easy to exhibit. It’s a matter of scale. The problem is that Muybridge’s studies of humans and animals in motion -- his most crucial contribution -- are comparatively tiny. In exhibitions, size does matter; it’s discouraging to discover that this Tate show abounds in images not much larger than the average postage stamp.

On the other hand, these busy little figures made Muybridge a monument, and not only in the histories of art and photography. They give him a claim to be, if not the father, then at least the great-uncle of the moving picture. In fact, these sequences can be animated -- a few are in the exhibition - - to produce a second or two of Victorian video art.

Dead Lover

Muybridge developed methods of capturing movement in unprecedented detail in the 1870s. The decade was punctuated by an incident in which he shot dead his wife’s lover and was cleared on the grounds of justifiable homicide. By using greatly increased shutter speeds, he was able to take sequential series of pictures revealing for the first time how a horse galloped.

He went on to study various birds, mammals and naked or near-naked human beings performing all manner of actions -- running, jumping, getting out of bed, fighting, walking down stairs. These studies were of huge interest to painters. Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” may have been inspired by Muybridge’s shots of a woman doing just that. Bacon used Muybridge’s work as an image bank.

These little 1880s people in motion are touching and memorable, yet I wonder whether an exhibition is the best place to look at them. The truth is that they are halfway between book illustration and film.

Biblical Look

The figures in motion, however, were only part of Muybridge’s achievement. He was a flamboyant man; with a mane of hair and Biblical beard he looked like a cross between Buffalo Bill and General Custer, and he started off by taking big, spectacular pictures.

A late starter, Muybridge set up as a photographer in his mid-30s after having immigrated to the U.S. His early work took pioneering, frontier themes -- Alaska, Yosemite Valley, a war with an American Indian tribe. His landscape photographs, “Pi-Wi-Ack. Valley of the Yosemite” (1872), for example, have much of the epic sweep of 19th-century American painting by such contemporaries as Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900).

Muybridge’s photographic panoramas of San Francisco that he made in 1878 -- 360-degree portraits of a city that vanished in the 1906 earthquake -- have a sweep of a more literal kind.

Forerunner of Hollywood, gunslinger and a precursor of Ansel Adams as photographer of the Californian Landscape, Muybridge seems an archetypal figure of the American west. Nonetheless, he eventually returned to England and spent his last years back in Kingston-Upon-Thames.

“Eadweard Muybridge” is at Tate Britain, London, through Jan. 16, 2011. Information: The show was previously at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., and will travel to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art next year.

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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