Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904)
At a conference in Lisbon recently, I was introduced to the work of Eadweard Muybridge through a presentation by Monique Frobert-Adamo of the University Claude-Bernard, Lyon. This is a short discussion of his work, but it would repay much more study and is rich with potential for debate on art.
The subject of the presentation was semiotics, but I include him here, because Muybridge was, as an early photographer, an innovator in printing. His cyanotypes, the contact prints and working proofs he made while photographing humans and animals in motion, remain, while the negatives are lost. These cyanotypes are quite thought-provoking in the modern day, when our ways of recording and printing images have changed so much.
From the Victoria and Albert Museum Website:
The cyanotype process for making prints was invented by Sir John Herschel in 1842 and came from his discovery of the light sensitivity of iron salts. A sheet of paper was brushed with iron salt solutions and dried in the dark. The object to be reproduced – a plant specimen, a drawing or a negative – was then placed on the sheet in direct sunlight. After about 15 minutes a white impression of the subject formed on a blue background. The paper was then washed in water where oxidation produced the brilliant blue – or cyan – that gave the process its name.
This process was developed for uses in photography to give a quick positive “blueprint” from a negative: chemicals were brushed onto paper, then the negative exposed in sunlight. When brushed with water, the light parts of the negative turned blue, whereas the dark remained white. In other words it produced a blue coloured photographic print.
Modern photographers, perversely perhaps, are again experimenting with this process: in parallel with those of us doing printmaking, perhaps they are interested in the “handmade” or slightly imperfect quality, in opposition to increasing digital technicality which continually raises the specs.
Muybridge is a fascinating person to study: his experimentation with capturing locomotion culminated in photographing a horse running, thus exposing a lot of the paintings up to that point as “wrong”. (Most artists at this time were still attempting to represent the visible world accurately.)This work, which was shown to the public in a rotating slideshow, became a freeze frame movie, mimicking real action, telling a story, and paving the way for cinema. (Whether he or Lumiere should be given credit with its invention is debated.)
His studies at the University of Pennsylvania, which awarded him a grant to photograph locomotion, raise interesting and very contemporary questions about the boundaries of science and art, and commerce as well. His slides, named rather like the minimalist titling of some abstract art, such as “Man, climbing stairs” or “Walking, commencing to turn round” have a scientific precision, like a botanist labelling the parts of a species, or an engineer explaining a mechanical diagram. Yet, as with abstract art, the viewer can interpret these images in many ways- from their doubtless aesthetic qualities, to their sense of making the unknowable known, while also rendering the familiar suddenly unfamiliar. As a visual artist, he added another dimension to those of tone and space – time. This was a new visual metaphor, and tension between movement and stillness creates unease- although the frames are all fixed images, there is never any one which looks as if the person is still- the action is always potential at every given moment. (Muybridge did edit his frames, as the sheets of cyanotype proofs attest, but it is not clear on what basis.) On the other hand, his use of nude figures, especially women, was rather shocking in its day, and led to the images having a below-the-counter exchange value in Victorian society. Similarly, his images of deformed and handicapped individuals were either scientifically interesting or designed to appeal to contemporary tastes for the grotesque. Why did he do this? He was a businessman, so it made sense: on the other hand, in this post-Darwinist era, explorers were increasingly going in search of unexplored places and peoples, and the new science of anthropology was producing similar images of “primitive people”. Of course, many of these were also consumed for less than scientific purposes.
Nevertheless, the influence of this new visual metaphor, the representation of time, could be seen on visual artists such as Duchamp (whose title “Nude descending staircase” could have been one of Muybridge’s) and felt in literature and philosophy, for example in works on the stream of consciousness.
I’m going to jump to a hasty conclusion here and say that subject matter- the “what” of painting, photography, printing- dictates the methods, and is the most important question in art…. To be discussed further…