Eadweard Muybridge was born Edward James Muggeridge in Kingston-upon-Thames on April 9, 1830. He changed his name three times: from Muggeridge to Muygridge in the 1850’s, from Muygridge to Muybridge in the 1860’s, and finally from Edward to Eadweard in 1882. His family members were grain and coal merchants. After leaving the local grammar school, he also left his commercial family and their provincial town to sail for the United States. By the spring of 1856 he was established as a bookseller in San Francisco, where he would remain, on and off, until the 1880’s. The later years of his life Muybridge spent working both in America and in Europe, exploiting the fame he had acquired as a pioneer of instantaneous photography. He died in Kingston-upon-Thames in 1904.
As Rebecca Solnit observes, time in the nineteenth century was transformed from a phenomenon which linked humans to the cosmos to one linking industrial activities to each other. This transformation changed the way humans imagined their world. Solnit sets up her study of Muybridge and his influence on photography and the understanding of the West by noting that four discoveries of the nineteenth century altered this sense of time and space, first in the United States and then in the rest of the world: the railroad, which transformed the experience of nature and the landscape; the founding of the science of geology, which expanded time by revealing the immense age of the earth; photography, which both froze time and, later, animated it; and the telegraph, which collapsed time by providing instantaneous communication over the expanse of space. These four discoveries reshaped previous ideas about time and space and transformed the Victorian age into the modern one.
Muybridge’s good fortune was not only to have been born into a period of rapid technological and intellectual change but also to have spent his most productive years living and working in California, a place that offered opportunities to become a self-made man, to make money and to acquire fame, and to reinvent oneself in a place unburdened by the past.
Muybridge’s life was marked by three major crises. First, a stagecoach accident nearly killed him and may have damaged his brain. Second, he murdered his wife’s lover. Third, Muybridge ultimately broke off his relationship with Leland Stanford, who had for many years acted as his patron. After each of these crises Muybridge reconfigured his life. The brain damage resulting from the stagecoach accident may have sharpened his perception and helped to promote his career as a photographer. His trial and acquittal for the murder of his wife’s lover propelled him out of the United States and marked the beginning of the transition period before he dedicated himself to his research with instantaneous photography. His break with Stanford forced him to pursue his fame and widen his experiments outside of California, at the University of Pennsylvania and in Europe.
The transition from bookseller to photographer developed over time. In 1860 Muybridge left San Francisco by stage, bound for New York. The accident which nearly cost him his life occurred in New Mexico. Although he intended to return to his business in California, he ended up wandering for some years, searching for a return to good health. He returned to England and later went to New York to pursue a suit against the Butterfield Stage Company. Solnit speculates that during this time he was exploring options for a new career. By the time he resurfaced in San Francisco in 1869, he had changed his name to Muybridge and was photographing landscapes under the name of Helios. Over the next few years he became one of the pioneer photographers of Yosemite, which was increasingly becoming a tourist destination. He took photos in and around San Francisco, documenting the earthquake damage in 1868. He also went to Alaska to photograph. His fame as one of the new breed of Western photographers introduced him to the painter Albert Bierstadt and the novelist, later of Ramona fame, Helen Hunt Jackson. Then, in 1872, Muybridge was hired by Stanford to do a series of photographs of his trotter, Occident. That commission changed Muybridge’s life and brought him the recognition that he retains to this day.
The purpose of Stanford’s study was to prove that a horse, when running, would at various stages...
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