University courses on the history of film often begin with the photographic experiments of Eadweard Muybridge, most famously the 1878 sequence of still photographs of a galloping racehorse that showed all four hooves in the air at regular intervals of the run, thus winning a bet (so the story goes) for the experiment’s sponsor, California millionaire and former Governor Leland Stanford. Muybridge later contrived to exhibit his sequential photographs rapidly in a device he called a zoopraxiscope, a primitive movie projector that created a choppy illusion of motion. Having acknowledged Muybridge’s early colourful experiment, film professors with a syllabus to complete might be tempted to move quickly on to Edison’s kinetoscope and the Lumières’ cinématographe, milestones of invention with a more lasting impact. In Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer, documentarian Thom Andersen resists that temptation in a big way, lingering over the whole stretch of a compelling photographic career that included 100,000 shots of animals and humans – nude, for the most part – in motion. The result is a mesmerising film essay that eludes easy description but remains required viewing over four decades after its inspired creation as a master’s thesis project at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

Muybridge’s adventurous life, which included several career and name changes, extensive travels from England to the far west of the United States and Central America, a near-fatal stagecoach accident, and a murder trial in which he was the defendant, certainly invites interest, and Andersen makes the most of it. Born in 1830 in Kingston-upon-Thames, England, as Edward James Muggeridge, he left home at 20 to seek his fortune in America, ending up in San Francisco as a bookseller. After taking up photography on a visit to his home country in the 1860s, he went into business as a photographer in San Francisco, first doing portraits and later outdoor scenes. Hauling a wagon/studio about the American West, he made a name for himself with his shots of Yosemite National Park, drawing the attention of Stanford, who hired him for the equine movement experiments.

In 1872, he married a woman half his age. Two years later, when he discovered another man had fathered the child he thought was his, he sought him out and killed him with a single shot. At his murder trial, he pleaded insanity, but needn’t have in the American Wild West; he was acquitted on grounds of justifiable homicide. Muybridge’s solution to the problem of the young child, following the subsequent death of his wife, will probably not win him many admirers among viewers of Andersen’s film.

The horse studies for Stanford were the prelude to a life’s work of photographing bodies in motion.  When he turned from animals to humans, he insisted on complete nudity. Through his battery of cameras, he captured clear images of naked men, women and children in a myriad of activities, ranging from ambulation to strenuous athletics. Even with the field levelled by universal nudity, sexism emerges. While the men are shown in forceful actions – running, wrestling, tossing objects – women are photographed seated or supine. (In 2016, Andersen revealed that, due to the time constraints imposed by the Public Broadcasting Service, he was forced to cut a part of the film in which he addressed this issue – admitting that, at the time, he feared criticism for its omission.1)

Nudity is a significant component of Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer. With few exceptions, models were clearly chosen for their beauty of form. Muybridge insisted that he was a scientist, a student of animal motion (or ‘Animal Locomotion’, as he called the enormous photographic record from which Andersen took most of his images). He kept meticulous records; Andersen slyly notes that Muybridge recorded the name of every animal he photographed, but identified his naked human models only by number. In the various side, frontal or rear shots of his adult male and female subjects, no attempt was made to preserve modesty. In fairness, Muybridge did not spare himself the stare of the camera either, acting as his own model and, at the age of 55, revealing a trim, disciplined body.

If concupiscence was the motive of either Muybridge or Andersen, it is well disguised – but the question is worth asking, if only to acknowledge that the film represents, in rich and curious ways, the work of two separate artists. The first was a would-be filmmaker who possibly came as close as any other human being to creating movies before the introduction of flexible film made it possible to actually do so; the second, a late 20th century filmmaker with a clearly affectionate interest in seeing Muybridge’s work completed. Through the use of stop-motion animation and modern recording and projecting equipment, the erratic images of motion exhibited to audiences in the US and abroad by Muybridge on his zoopraxiscope – essentially, a magic lantern with two rotating disks – are replaced in Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer with smooth cinematic passages that are at once primitive and enchanting. In effect, Andersen shows us what Muybridge wanted us to see.

In one of Muybridge’s sequences, two naked women approach each other and kiss; Andersen ends his film by reproducing the same scene with two contemporary actresses. To accentuate all the historical differences that separate the creator from the reproducer, the sequence is presented in a sudden burst of color. But to signify a basic kinship, the movements of the women are punctuated by artificially imposed black shutter spaces. In a moment of kinship with a brave pioneer, Andersen presents two women visually stuttering towards each other before a final union. It forms an intriguing coda.

As in his later masterpiece Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), Andersen’s signature voice-over component adds aesthetic gravity to the proceedings. The measured voice of the narrator of Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer, the American actor Dean Stockwell, makes an uncannily effective contribution, as does a haunting score by Michael Cohen. In a style that predates the works of Ken Burns and others, Andersen’s study of a 19th century eccentric’s near-obsessive work of photographing human and animal bodies is eerily hypnotic. The portrait of Muybridge that emerges marks him once again as a worthy forebear of a medium with an endless capacity to fascinate.

 

Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer (1975 USA 59 mins)

 

Prod Co: University of California, Los Angeles Prod: Thom Andersen Dir: Thom Andersen Ed: Morgan Fisher Mus: Michael Cohen

 

Cast: Dean Stockwell, Sharon Hagen, Anje Bos

 

Endnotes:

 

  1. Thom Andersen, “Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer”, pamphlet included with the DVD Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer (The Cinema Guild, 2016), p. 5.

About The Author

Joseph Sgammato has written for Sight and Sound, The Wordsworth Circle, The College Language Association Journal, and other publications. He teaches English and Film at Westchester Community College, a division of the State University of New York, in Valhalla, New York and lives in Norwalk, Connecticut.