Eadweard Muybridge: Technology Settles a Debate

Detail: First quarter of 1943 Kentucky Derby from infield

Every year on the first Saturday in May, some of the fastest land animals on earth thunder down a racetrack in Louisville, Kentucky. They cover a mile and a quarter in a race lasting only about two minutes: the Kentucky Derby. Thoroughbred horses run so fast — approaching 50 miles per hour — that their legs look like a dusty blur.

In the late 19th century — the early heyday of horse racing in the United States — many people wondered about how horses’ legs moved when they ran. The biggest question was whether a horse ever completely lost contact with the ground. One man who thought he had the answer, Leland Stanford, hired a photographer to prove he was right. Eadweard Muybridge, the photographer, devised a system with a series of cameras that recorded every step taken by a galloping horse. In other words, the multiple cameras captured what the human eye could not. Muybridge’s work showed that Stanford was correct about whether a horse’s legs ever leave the ground simultaneously. Can you tell what Stanford thought by looking at the images of racehorse “Annie G.” below?

Animal locomotion - 16 frames of racehorse "Annie G." galloping

Animal locomotion – 16 frames of racehorse “Annie G.” galloping, c. 1887; Eadweard Muybridge

Invite students to compare the series of photographs to drawings of horses from 1870, 1881 and 1884. Why did the artists depict the horses’ legs this way?

For additional Library of Congress resources and teaching ideas, visit Celebrating Edweard Muybridge: Documenting Movement and Creating Art. To learn more about the Kentucky Derby, visit The The First Derby Day. Introduce younger students to The First Kentucky Derby. 

What connections might you make between stop-motion photography, the Kentucky Derby, and your curriculum?

One Comment

  1. Joan Beaudoin
    April 30, 2015 at 11:17 pm

    Another work to look at to show the influence Muybridge’s photographs had on contemporary painting is Thomas Eakin’s “The Fairman Rogers’ Four-in-Hand” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

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