Eadweard Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion

Fig. 1 The bay horse, Daisy, at a gallop (Plate 526)

by Colin Harris

How fortunate to discover a list of plates of Muybridge’s Animal locomotion photographs existed, just as I was about to start listing the holdings of the collection recently acquired by the Weston Library, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. Muybridge called it a catalogue, but effectively it is a cumulative list of plates which comprise the collection. For my purposes it provided the basis of my project, but it didn’t solve all my problems. I needed to establish whether the collection was complete, and the only way to do this was to inspect every plate and record them methodically. The purpose of this post is to describe the strategy I adopted and, with the aid of my listing, to provide some insights into the collections, notably the contribution of the female models. It also raises the question: what are the differences between catalogues and lists?

Animal locomotion effectively started with a wager placed by Leland Stanford, former Governor of California, railroad millionaire and racehorse owner, who wanted to prove that at a gallop all four horses’ hooves were momentarily off the ground as part of their natural gait. Artists had long portrayed galloping horses in this way, legs stretched out fore and aft. Up to this time (1877) photographic technology was not sufficiently sophisticated to produce shutter speeds short enough to capture such short-lived movements to settle the wager. Stanford knew of a photographer whose artistic, landscape photographs had received many plaudits. He chose to enlist this photographer in favour of the many others based in town. The photographer was Eadweard Muybridge, an Englishman (born Edward James Muggeridge) who had emigrated from Kingston upon Thames to New York in 1851-2 to work as an agent of the London Printing and Publishing Co., subsequently moving and setting up business at 113 Montgomery Street, San Francisco in 1855.

On one of his trips back to England in 1860 Muybridge was involved in a horrific stagecoach accident in NE Texas, which caused him temporarily to lose his senses and which seems to have been instrumental in a change of his character and direction in life. For the next 6 years he traveled extensively, including return trips to London and Europe, during which time he first learnt, then perfected wet-plate photography. Eventually he returned to San Francisco in about 1866 to exploit his new-found photographic skills.

Stanford could not have chosen a better person than Muybridge with his pioneering spirit, ingenuity and capacity for invention. Developing a speedier chemistry and using state-of-the art lenses imported from London, he established a system of photographing horses at speed, using grids and whitewashed walls, and a bank of 12 cameras to record a sequence of ‘snapshots’ and in 1878 was able to prove for the very first time that Stanford was right in his surmise that all four hooves were momentarily off the ground while galloping, but to the surprise of all it was in mid-gallop with legs tucked up within the length of the body. (Fig. 1)

The following years proved difficult for Muybridge, especially in terms of securing gainful employment, following a falling-out with Stanford. In 1884, however, following entreaties in the form of a circulated prospectus of his ambitious, photographic investigation, he was accommodated by the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, which agreed to facilitate his great venture, the natural extension to his previous work on horses: sequential images of men, women and children in various everyday movements; animals and birds; and further photographs of horses.  Now with 24 electro-photographic cameras, using the faster and more convenient gelatine dry-plate photography and under the partial supervision of the artist Thomas Eakins, he was able to further perfect his art and duly published Animal locomotion:  an electro-photographic investigation of consecutive phases of animal movements, 1872-1885 (University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 1887).

I had long been aware of this ground breaking publication and was disappointed, though not surprised, that the Bodleian Library did not have a copy. It was with great surprise and delight, therefore, that the Sackler Library (Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford) had a copy [on the title page it is described as ‘Author’s Edition’] which had lain for many years uncatalogued, having previously been held by the Ashmolean Museum, the Ashmolean’s blind stamp testifying to previous ownership. The Librarian of the Sackler suggested the collection be transferred to Rare Books in the Weston Library where it could be catalogued, made more accessible and conserved in optimum conditions. Was I willing, as part of my volunteering on photographic collections [see my Listology blog of May 26, 2019], to take this on? You bet! What follows is a description of the collection and how I listed it.

Muybridge’s Animal locomotion comprises 781 loose, collotype plates reproducing more than ‘20,000 photographs [in much-reduced format selected from over 100,000 taken] of men, women and children, animals and birds …walking, galloping, flying, working, playing, fighting, dancing or other actions incidental to every-day life, which illustrate motion and the play of muscles’. The plates were printed from original negatives using the photo-gelatine process and measure 485X610 mm on linen steel-plate paper, supplied as 8 portfolios in red-brown cloth. Each plate has multiple, sequential images of ‘models’ performing pre-determined movements, as many as 36 in three rows of 12 or 6 rows of 6 or as few as 12 in two rows of 6.  Portfolios 1-6 (Plates 1-562) contain men, women, a few children and a few male and female patients in the University and Philadelphia Hospitals suffering with a variety of disabilities; portfolio 7 (Plates 563-657) horses; and portfolio 8 (Plates 658-781), animals and birds.  

It was exciting to examine the contents and establish the coverage. The good news was that every plate has a printed, official (serial) number; the bad news was that apart from portfolios 7 and 8 the numbered plates were only partially in order, Plates 1-562 being distributed according to the subject ascribed to a particular portfolio: 1 =  men – nude; 2 = women – nude; 3 = men – pelvis cloth and abnormal, 4 = women semi-nude and draped; 5 = men and women – draped; 6 women – nude and abnormal; 7 = horses; 8 = animals and birds. So my first task was to restore correct plate order according to each portfolio [over the years, even with limited usage, the order had become confused].  Once I had done that, I created sheets with 10 columns: one for the plate number, one for each of the portfolios and one to ascribe a folio number for each plate (foliation being in one single sequence), thus establishing a permanent order which could easily be maintained and at the same time facilitated precise identification, security and retrieval.

Fig. 2 First page of the catalogue issued with the prospectus.

Discovering via the internet that there existed a prospectus and catalogue of the collection published in early 1887 as a guide to prospective purchasers, I promptly downloaded a copy and used it to great advantage alongside my listing, annotating each plate number with the newly-allocated folio number. The publication is meticulous in its recording (Fig. 2), providing a series of descriptive columns listing the various elements of the photographic record [an early form of metadata], including the plate (serial) number, the precise movements (i.e. walking, running, climbing stairs, etc), the models denoted by dedicated number, number of sequential images, the angles of the cameras, exposure timings, and a ‘costume’: N =nude, S. N. = semi-nude, P. C. = pelvis cloth, T. D. = transparent drapery. D = draped, i.e. fully clothed, B. F. = bare feet (‘the costume of peasant girls with the legs below the knees, and the feet bare’). My survey revealed that the collection lacks 38 plates, duly indicated in the annotated catalogue with a dash. Completing my listing I duly relayed the information to a member of Rare Books staff who created a bibliographical record (Bod. Vet. K 7 a. 2/1-8) in the University of Oxford’s online catalogue of printed/published material (SOLO) and inputted the details, including the sequence of original plate (serial) numbers held within each portfolio.

Photographs were advertised in Muybridge’s prospectus as being only available for purchase by subscription, a basic or minimum order (or a ‘copy’ as Muybridge called it) being a selection of 100. At 100 dollars per 100 plates it was not cheap, and if current knowledge is correct only 37 complete sets (of the 8 portfolios) were ever made. On the face of it, though lacking 38 plates, the collection now in the Weston Library is one of these 37 and hence very important and valuable. At Christie’s auction on December 11, 2019, a portfolio of just 93 plates sold for £31,250, just over twice the guide price!

Within the collection are many memorable and iconic photographs, and Muybridge is rightly lauded as the ‘father of instantaneous photography’ and by extension a forerunner of motion pictures which was taken to the next level by the Lumière brothers in 1892, five years after Animal locomotion was published. The image below (Fig. 3) superbly demonstrates a sequence of images of a woman jumping over a stool which, if viewed in rapid succession, with the advantage of the human capacity for the persistence of vision, create the impression of moving images, the basis of movies. He also invented the zoöpraxiscope which demonstrated this illusion by mounting a sequence of images within a revolving cylindrical viewing apparatus. The same effect is employed in simple flick-books.

Fig. 3 Model 4 jumping; running straight high jump [with shoes] (Plate 156)

Muybridge’s human subjects [as opposed to animals and birds], ‘models’ as he describes them, totaled 102, accordingly to my calculations, and include many (male) students or graduates of the University of Pennsylvania, aged from 18-24, demonstrating their particular athletic prowess. Other male models include mechanics, labourers, teachers (model numbers 52, 64-6), a member of the militia (60), a well-known instructor in art (51), an ex-athlete, aged about 60 (95 [actually Muybridge!]), a mixed race professional pugilist (22), public acrobats (42, 49), boys aged 13-15 (27-9) and patients in the University and Philadelphia Hospitals (92, 94). The female models were only 21 in number, said to have been chosen ‘from all classes of society’, namely (1) a widow aged 35, ‘somewhat slender and above the medium height’, (3) a married woman ‘heavily built’, (4-13, 15, 19) unmarried women aged between, 17-24, (14, 16, 93) married women and (20) a morbidly obese, unmarried woman. Muybridge’s intention was to demonstrate a selection of models ‘who fairly illustrate how—in a more or less graceful or perfect manner—the movements appertaining to every-day life are performed’. One of the criticisms of some of his photographs is that he purposely chose ‘artistic’ images above otherwise perfectly acceptable representations. The image below is certainly beautiful (Fig. 4), but can it really be considered scientific? Muybridge justifies it in his description of images of models wearing transparent drapery (T.D.): ‘the flowing garment of diaphanous texture, which permits the action of the limbs to be seen, and the conformation of the folds of the drapery thereto.’

Fig. 4 Detail [6 of 12] of Model 12, dancing (fancy) (Plate 189)

The women, though few in number compared to the men, were actually responsible for 327 plates out of total of 562 of men, women and children, 4 of them (Models 1, 7, 8 and 12) contributing to 231 of the plates. These four were real ‘troopers’, but all the women deserve special mention for their largely unsung contribution to this major scientific investigation. My blog piece focuses on them.

The widow (Model 1) features in 43 plates in numerous poses, some with a child, perhaps her own. One wonders whether this work was a convenient source of income (assuming she was paid). She was certainly very dextrous and able to enact the various ‘movements’ as requested, however contrived some of them must have appeared. A good example of this is evident in one plate alone (Fig. 5). She also features in the small section (Plates 537-62) of so-called ‘abnormal movements’, that is movements of those suffering with some form of disability, such as amputation, muscular atrophy, locomotor ataxia, etc.  Her contribution was feigning ‘artificially-induced convulsions’, the scientific study into ‘hysteria’ and the like having already been published with photographs of facial expressions by Duchenne of Boulogne, the famous French neurologist 20 years before, and continued by his star student, Jean-Martin Charcot who photographed muscle spasms in rapid succession. Another Frenchman, the photographer and scientist, Étienne Jules Marey, impressed by Muybridge’s work, developed the use of sequential, instantaneous photography still further, having already published himself La Machine animale in 1873.

Fig. 5 Model 1 lifting ball, emptying bucket of water, kicking above her head, striking with a stick, stumbling, lifting a 50-lb dumb-bell (Plate 526)

Other women display excellent multi-tasking skills, particularly Model 7 who appears in 71 plates, Model 8 in 77 plates and Model 12 in 40 plates. Men are generally portrayed in pursuits demonstrating their physical abilities as exemplified by Muybridge himself (95) with a pick axe (Fig. 6):

Fig. 6 Model 95 [Muybridge] walking, ascending step, throwing a disk, using a shovel, using a pick axe (Plate 521)

Muybridge rightly deserves all the accolades which he is afforded, though his colourful life and use of female models have courted controversy. Much has been written about him. But I think the models themselves deserve credit for their part in his publication for literally exposing themselves to such scrutiny, forsaking the norms of Victorian decency. To be confronted by banks of cameras pointing at them from different angles with a team of photographers who I assume were mainly, if not all, men, must have taken some nerve, especially for the women who were mainly photographed nude or ‘semi-nude’. It is worth noting here that none of the married women appeared nude and men and women never appeared nude together, thus maintaining a basic propriety. No doubt all the models were convinced the photographs were only ever going to be used for scientific study and viewed only by a limited clientele, perhaps never thinking they would be published. Little did they foresee that in their way they have become immortalised. I would dearly love to know more about the models, their back story, their motivation to participate and what happened to them later in life. Were they proud of what they did or was it something they never spoke about, being an embarrassment in later life? We can only imagine. What we can say is that their willingness to participate in the investigation changed our concepts of the beauty and complexities of movements of the human form, Animal locomotion being an instant and lasting influence on artists and scientists, as well as being part of photographic history.

What started out as a simple cataloguing project soon became much more, the sheer richness of the details recorded in Muybridge’s catalogue and prospectus lending itself to the creation of targeted lists providing new insights and avenues for investigation. My focus on the women is one such list and demonstrates, to my mind, the difference between a list and a catalogue, a list representing specific aspects chosen by the compiler in order to further study or discuss, to demonstrate a particular point of view or simply to supply an aide-mémoire, whereas a catalogue includes everything within its purview, regardless of its multiplicity of subjects.

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