Playing the Ponies

Eadweard Muybridge's horse pictures changed photography and spawned cinema.

Four off the floor: Muybridge's images of trotting - horses revealed their peculiar stride.
Four off the floor: Muybridge's images of trotting horses revealed their peculiar stride.
The battle for Middle Earth was waged with tens of thousands of mounted ebony horses furiously charging over the Pelennor Fields to capture the White City of Minas Tirith. Countless steeds were taken out by enemy weaponry or toppled by inadvertent contact, rendered into heaps of mangled muscle on the battlefield.

Of course, the monumental scene from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King didn't require thousands of horses, or injury to so much as a single animal. The footage was created using digital images of a single horse's movements in a specially designed studio. That motion was used to re-create countless additional "cyberhorses," which strode seamlessly alongside the real ones onscreen. It's a scene made possible by the latest digital technology, but its origins are rooted in work done well over a century ago. In 1872, Eadweard Muybridge became the first artist to capture motion in horses using still photography; his results proved that the previously painstaking medium could capture movement too elusive for the human eye to see. Muybridge's further exploration of human and animal movement, as well as his invention of an early motion-picture projector, made him a pivotal figure in the advent of cinema. His work, as well as that of artists predating him and those he influenced, can be experienced in Time Stands Still: Muybridge and the Instantaneous Photography Movement, at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

The exhibition's accompanying text, ironically, declares that instantaneous photography was not a true movement at all, but rather a loosely affiliated community of artists experimenting with a new medium. An instantaneous photo is one in which the beginning and end of an exposure are close enough that they depict an action without blur. This is evident in the anonymous 1855 photograph "Ice Skaters on the Seine," in which several black outlines of skaters are cast against the white background of the frozen river. Its virtuosic rendering of the skaters' movements without blur seems simplistic to the modern eye; after all, catching simple motion with clarity has been easy to do for decades. In this way, the exhibition is a continuous reminder of photography's many incremental advances. The abundance of old photographs displayed alongside the historic equipment used imbues the exhibition with the feel of a scientific investigation more than an art show. And indeed, the sheer number of grayscale scenes of shifting tides can be fairly numbing -- less of an artistic exploration than a visual endurance test. The show's most striking elements are the works created by well-known artists who succeeded Muybridge and who were clearly influenced by his work.

Muybridge's pioneering studies of motion came about thanks to a convergence of his skill and the money and ambition of Leland Stanford, California's governor during the Civil War and president of the Central Pacific Railroad. Thirty-three years after the invention of photography, Stanford asked Muybridge to photograph his racehorses: He hoped to gain a better understanding of their gaits in order to improve their performance on the track, as well as to prove his wager that all four legs of a horse leave the ground simultaneously when it runs. Muybridge had the benefit of the strong California sun, Stanford's pocketbook (which he put to use purchasing state-of-the-art shutters and lenses), and the perfect blend of skill and inventiveness; his technique relied on a series of electrically connected tripwires, which would set off a bank of cameras when activated by the steps of the running horse. His pictures successfully captured the horse's movement without the blur other artists had experienced. Stanford was satisfied; his wager was won.

Along with multiple variations of Muybridge's groundbreaking equine photos, the exhibition also features images of human movement that Muybridge recorded after moving to Pennsylvania in 1884. As human subjects lacked the velocity of the running horse, Muybridge was forced to abandon his tripwire technique and devise a new means for recording movement. Ever inventive, he created a clockwork mechanism to control the camera's exposures of his various subjects. His images of human movement are markedly more intriguing than those of his animals; they feel unencumbered by moral taboos and instead celebrate variations of the human form. One is a captivating series from 1885 called "Woman With Multiple Sclerosis, Walking (Anna May Keisler)." In profile, nothing is extraordinary about the nude female's gait; the frontal images, however, reveal the effects of her affliction: her severely bowed legs and outwardly turned arm. It's an eloquent examination of physical distress and figural beauty.

Muybridge's filmstrip-like images of human beings and animals were published in an album titled Animal Locomotion; blue cyanotype proofs for the album are on display. They reveal the cropping and editing techniques employed by Muybridge to create early "films" of his subjects. In 1968, John Straiton applied the images to 16mm film, which can be viewed on a wall-sized screen in the gallery. Here, Muybridge's pictures take on a humorous and entertaining life of their own: Nude men and women are shown walking and running; elephants meander and birds fly by, all set to whimsical orchestral music.

At a time when many "fine" artists creating paintings and sculpture disdained photography as an inferior art form, several took notice of Muybridge. Perhaps the most direct example of this is illustrated in Frederic Remington's 1909 bronze "Trooper of the Plains -- 1868." This equestrian sculpture defies earlier renditions of horses galloping with legs spread in opposite directions; instead, Remington's magnificent horse in motion is shown with all four legs tucked beneath its body, a direct result of Muybridge's work with Stanford's horses. Edgar Degas was one of the few artists who openly loved photography without feeling challenged by it as a new art form. It is likely that Muybridge influenced his paintings of racehorses, as well as those of ballet dancers. Degas's 1895 oil painting "Frieze of Dancers" seems to depict a single dancer in a succession of seated poses. When compared to Muybridge's cinematic strips of images, Degas's painting feels like an equally fragmented translation in paint.

In a March 4 interview for the British newspaper The Guardian, pop artist David Hockney declared that photography is dead, thanks particularly to the dawn of the digital medium. Now, photos of aging rock stars are retouched, and images of war are manipulated to the point of falsity. His sentiments rival the contrary cry of Muybridge's contemporaries, who were confounded by the truths found in motion that the human eye had previously been unable to see. Time Stands Still invites exploration of these early issues of photography and cinema. A lot of reading is required to understand the historical significance of the photographs presented, and even then, questions about the technology remain. Of course, by displaying images best remembered for their historical significance, the exhibition struggles to maintain its aesthetic appeal. Such is the paradox of presenting scientific advances amid the walls of an art museum.