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Eadweard J. Muybridge , (Apr 9, 1830–May 8, 1904)

Animal Locomotion

1887
18 3/8 in. x 23 1/4 in. (46.67 cm x 59.06 cm)

Medium and Support: eleven folio volumes containting seven hundred and eighty collotype prints on pa
Credit Line: gift of the Edwin J. Beinecke Trust
Accession Number: 1984.6.1-779

Commentary

Eadweard Muybridge's magnum opus, Animal Locomotion: An Electro-Photographic Investigation of Consecutive Phases of Animal Movements, was undertaken in June 1884 at the University of Pennsylvania. The work was completed in 1885 and published in 1887, in eleven volumes containing 781 plates assembled from 19,347 single images. Lecturing at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia in 1882, Muybridge met the painter Thomas Eakins.1 Apparently, both Eakins and his friend, the Philadelphia art patron Fairman Rogers, had constructed zoetrope strips from the early Muybridge images to test their accuracy.2Enthusiastic about the possibility of further motion studies, Rogers and Eakins approached the University of Pennsylvania provost, Dr. William Pepper, and persuaded him to allow Muybridge the use of the veterinary hospital grounds as a studio.3

Muybridge was careful and specific in his assertion of the "indisputable value to the artist and to the scientist" of the physiognomic cataloguing of an unprecedented variety of activities involving movement.4 He used a black backdrop with white grid lines, or the reverse, depending on the color of the subject, for measurement, thereby making his images mathematically justifiable. The images are presented as an unmediated transcription of the actual phases of motion, undetectable to the unaided human eye, but quantifiable by scientific means.

Muybridge's pseudo-scientific prose accompanied Animal Locomotion in the form of a pamphlet called Prospectus and Catalogue of Plates, which explained the work and also functioned to solicit orders from individual subscribers for a set of 100 plates. In the pamphlet, Muybridge used numbers to refer to the models; each number corresponded to a brief description and the coding of the human subjects by letters: N., indicating nude; S.N., seminude; P.C., models with a pelvis cloth; T.D., transparent drapery on the model; D., a draped or fully clothed model; and B.F., bare feet.5 The descriptions allowed a prospective subscriber to select the plates that he would find most useful.

Although seemingly neutral, Muybridge's account actually positions the models according to socially prescribed gender roles. He states that the women models "were chosen from all classes of society," and he further designates them by their body type and marital status. Model number I, for example, is listed in the Prospectus as "a widow, aged thirty-five, somewhat slender and above the medium height." The men, conversely, are described by occupation and abilities. An interesting example is model number 95, "an ex-athlete, aged about sixty," who is Muybridge himself. Model number 51, "a well-known instructor in art,”6 is Eakins.

Ten of the eleven volumes of Animal Locomotion comprise a compendium of "normal" movements by which the abnormal—at least of the human animal—could be measured. According to F. X. Dercum, M.D., the instigator of volume VIII, Abnormal Movements, "In order that the various abnormal gaits should be properly understood, a study of the normal walk had first to be made.”7 While Muybridge's images in this volume visually narrated the abnormality of the patients, the physicians' narrative, compiled by Dr. Dercum,8 offered a verbal explanation. Muybridge constructs his own idea of abnormal movement, appropriating the medical authority of Dercum, by inserting plates 19 and 268—of model 20, who "is unmarried, and weighs three hundred and forty pounds" 9 —into the volume of Abnormal Movements. This model was not a patient at the University Hospital, but because of her bodily appearance, she apparently conformed to Muybridge's idea of the abnormal.

It is obvious from the enormous volumes of sequences, both "normal" and "abnormal,” that the images function well beyond the asserted "scientific investigation." Muybridge constructed sequences which are narrative in character and inaccurate as scientific studies. The phases of motion of one nude woman pouring water over the head of another nude woman seem dubious as science, for example, but intriguing as a subversive means of achieving an erotic narrative.

In a large number of the images, Muybridge clearly has the titillation of the viewer in mind, and science serves as a veil to shield the work from the kind of scrutiny that would, in terms of Victorian sensibilities, not have allowed such an overt depiction of sexuality. Muybridge, being a clever entrepreneur, as well as a photographic enthusiast, used inspiration from both art and science to create a compendium of visual narratives presented as an objective reference tool for the artist and the scientist. His motion studies were less scientific than fantastic; however, this simply imbues them with a greater historical significance, both revealing the cleverness of Muybridge and the inherent falseness in insisting on science as fact.

Rachelle A. Dermer, Addison Gallery of American Art: 65 Years, A Selective Catalogue (Andover, Massachusetts: Addison Gallery of American Art, 1996), pp. 436-37


1. Gordon Hendricks, Eadweard Muybridge: The Father of the Motion Picture (New York: Grossman Publishers, 1975), p. 149.

2. Marta Braun, Picturing Time (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992). p. 232.

3. Ibid.

4. Eadweard Muybridge, Animal Locomotion: An Electro-Photographic Investigation of Consecutive Phases of Animal Movements…. Prospectus and Catalogue of Plates (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1887).

5. Ibid., p. 13.

6. For this and the preceding quotations, see ibid.

7. Frances X. Dercum, M.D., "A Study of Some Normal and Abnormal Movements Photographed by Muybridge,” in Animal Locomotion: The Muybridge Work at the University of Pennsylvania: The Method and the Result (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1888), p. 104.
8. Ibid.

9. Muybridge, p. 13.

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