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Celebrating Edweard Muybridge: Documenting Movement and Creating Art

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Stop-action photography has become an integral part of our lives. It allows us to watch the beauty of a dancer, the grace of an athlete or the motion of an animal one frame at a time. It is hard to believe that until Edweard Muybridge began his study of animal locomotion with photography in the late 19th century, we were limited to only what the eye could see or what was in a single photograph. In celebration of Muybridge’s birthday, the Library of Congress has uploaded a number of Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion images from its collections into Flickr.

Horse in Motion
The horse in motion, illus. by Muybridge. “Sallie Gardner,” owned by Leland Stanford, running at a 1:40 gait over the Palo Alto track, 19 June 1878: 2 frames showing diagram of foot movements
bird in motion
Animal Locomotion

Colleagues in both the Prints and Photographs Division and the Science Division found plenty to write about this set, underscoring how it straddles science, technology, and art. In “Eadweard Muybridge: Birth of a Photographic Pioneer” Kristi Finefield noted how the camera recorded and revealed new insights about motion. “What the human eye could not capture at the time, Muybridge’s series of cameras, often operating on timers, could. And so, viewers of the late 19th century were able to see in a sequence of photos every step taken by a horse at full gallop, the sleek movements of a cat running and each flap of the wings of a bird in flight.” In “Animal Locomotion: From Antiquity to the 21st Century,” Jennifer Harbster traces the history of the study of animal locomotion. She suggests that “By studying nature and observing animal movement scientists can better understand biomechanics, physiology, evolution, physics, and engineering.” And so, we might add, can students!

Students can examine Muybridge’s work, including a few examples of zoopraxiscopes which helped to bring movement to still images. How can students use Muybridge’s photographs as part of science and artistic activities? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Ask students to select one sequence of “Animal locomotion” images, perhaps a horse or a cat running, and compare the sequence to the experience watching the action. What can be learned from the images that is not observable from the live action?
  • Direct students to one of Muybridge’s images of  birds in motion. How might a sequence of a bird in flight have shaped the experiments of early aviators?

    couple waltzing
    The zoopraxiscope – a couple waltzing
  • Invite students to brainstorm as many ways as they can that this technology has changed the way we live our lives. What scientific or technological developments were made easier because of this technology?
  • Kristi explained that the zoopraxiscope was a device Muybridge developed for use in presentations, giving the audience the impression of movement. What might you learn about dance from seeing a zoopraxiscope of a couple waltzing?

What do your students see differently through the lens of Edweard Muybridge?


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