Zooming in on San Francisco photographer Eadward Muybridge

Photography has become so easy that we can forget how, not long ago, we needed to master technical skills, such as film and shutter speeds, and be familiar with darkroom chemicals, in order to see the photos we’d taken. Now, of course, we can take practically as many pictures as we want – with our phones! – and see the results instantly. Such consumer-friendly innovations can be traced, in part, to early San Francisco-based photographer Eadweard Muybridge.

Muybridge’s artistic, commercial, and scientific innovations are usually overshadowed by his “Animal Locomotion” studies, originally started when railroad man Leland Stanford hired him to settle a bet.

“HELIOS: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change,” is the first major retrospective of work by this multi-talented innovator. It’s on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, through June 7. KALW’s Steven Short spoke with the curator and has this report.

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STEVEN SHORT: Eadward Muybridge was a photographer in the last half of the 1800s. At that time, negatives were made of glass, cameras were as big as an inkjet printer and photographers guessed at film exposure times. So you can appreciate how the idea of capturing motion on film was next to impossible.

But in 1872, a railroad baron named Leland Stanford contacted Muybridge to make a photograph showing one of his prize horses in motion. And to pull that off, well…

PHILIP BROOKMAN: Well, in 1872, if you had to make a photograph that would actually stop the motion of a running horse so that you could see what the horse looked like, you would have to invent a shutter, to be able to create a shutter speed that was short enough to accomplish that task.

Philip Brookman, of Washington, D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery of Art, is curator of “HELIOS: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change.” It’s a major exhibit of 300 photos and other objects currently at SFMOMA. We think it’s hard enough today to learn new technology. Imagine if you had to invent it, too! That’s what Muybridge did to complete Stanford’s stop-motion assignment.

BROOKMAN: Shutters didn’t exist that could do that at the time. And the film speed didn’t exist, so he had to really think through all the technology of photography to begin to approach to do what he was asked to do.

The technology of photography – well, the concept of a camera is simple enough. It’s merely a light-proof box that allows a small amount of light to fall onto a receptive material. Today’s digital cameras use an energized photo cell – that method has largely replaced photographic film, which was the standard before digital.

But back in Muybridge’s day, the receptive material was a large pane of treated glass. Cameras with glass negatives were one-shot deals. They had to be reloaded after each exposure. That meant to take a series of action shots, Muybridge had to arrange a line of precisely placed cameras – a dozen or two. And that’s what he did to in order to capture a horse’s movement. The horse tripped the wire attached to the camera as it passed.

BROOKMAN: It was difficult then to make photographs outside of the studio. And, you know, in doing that, I think that he – making the attempt in going through the complex technical operations to actually make photographs outside – he thought of himself as working in the kind of great landscape traditions of painting.

And while his innovations in landscape photography in Yosemite and elsewhere did advance the great landscape traditions, his motion studies were works unlike anything anyone had ever seen before. The San Francisco Museum of [Modern] Art is the final stop for this national exhibition of Eadward Muybridge’s photographs, and you’re not likely to see all of these works together again – they’re on loan from 38 different collections.

But after the exhibit closes, the legacy of Eadweard Muybridge will continue in the Bay Area. There’s a plaque on the campus of Stanford University noting his motion studies and a bronze statue of him outside of the Letterman Digital Arts Center in San Francisco’s Presidio – helping validate the claim that Muybridge is “The Father of the Motion Picture.”

For Crosscurrents, I’m Steven Short in San Francisco.

“Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change” is at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art now through June 7. The music in this story is from “The Photographer,” an orchestral work by Philip Glass, based on events in the life of Eadweard Muybridge.