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Eadweard Muybridge and the zoopraxiscope. Bonus: his 1882 book

April 9, 2015 /Photography News/ Born 185 years ago, Eadweard James Muybridge was an English photographer important for his pioneering work in photographic studies of motion and in motion-picture projection. He is also known for  his zoopraxiscope, a device for projecting motion pictures that pre-dated the flexible perforated film strip used in cinematography.

By 1860, Muybridge was a successful bookseller. During one of his business trips, he suffered severe head injuries in a violent runaway stagecoach crash which injured every passenger on board. The impact of the head trauma was nearly impossible to discern at the time, and certainly impossible to treat. Without doubt though, erratic episodes and dark chapters dogged Muybridge throughout his later years, not least his shooting dead the man whom he suspected of fathering his young wife’s child. 

Arthur P. Shimamura, a psychologist at the University of California Berkeley, has speculated that Muybridge suffered orbitofrontal cortex injuries, which may have led to some of the emotional, eccentric behavior in later years, as well as freeing his creativity from conventional social inhibitions. 

While recuperating in England, Muybridge took up the new field of professional photography sometime between 1861 and 1866. He learned the wet-plate collodion process in England, and may have been influenced by some of the great English photographers of those years, such as Julia Margaret Cameron. Also during this period, Muybridge secured at least two British patents for his inventions.

Galloping horse, animated in 2006, using photos by
Eadweard Muybridge.
Muybridge's motion studies and the zoopraxiscope

In 1872, the former governor of California Leland Stanford, a businessman and race-horse owner, hired Muybridge for some photographic studies. He had taken a position on a popularly debated question of the day — whether all four feet of a horse were off the ground at the same time while trotting. Stanford also wanted a study of the horse at a gallop.

Muybridge's The Horse in Motion, 1878
Muybridge planned to take a series of photos on 15 June 1878 at Stanford's Palo Alto Stock Farm. He placed numerous large glass-plate cameras in a line along the edge of the track; the shutter of each was triggered by a thread as the horse passed (in later studies he used a clockwork device to set off the shutters and capture the images). The path was lined with cloth sheets to reflect as much light as possible. He copied the images in the form of silhouettes onto a disc to be viewed in a machine he had invented, which he called a zoopraxiscope. This device was later regarded as an early movie projector, and the process as an intermediate stage toward motion pictures or cinematography.

Zoopraxiscope disc by Eadweard Muybridge
Between 1883 and 1886, Muybridge made more than 100,000 images, working obsessively in Philadelphia.

Jumping; running straight high jump, ca. 1884 - 1887
Plate 347, 'Wrestling; Graeco-Roman'. 'Wrestling; Graeco-Roman' 1887, Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904); Collotype process
Plate 539, c. 1887
Book: The Attitudes of Animals in Motion, Illustrated with the Zoopraxiscope, by Eadweard Muybridge; 1882




Eadweard Muybridge returned to his native England permanently in 1894. He published two popular books of his work, Animals in Motion (1899) and The Human Figure in Motion (1901), both of which remain in print over a century later. He died on 8 May 1904 in Kingston upon Thames.

Watch: BBC's 'The Weird World of Eadweard Muybridge'


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