Eadweard Muybridge’s Motion Photography Experiments from the 1870s Presented in 93 Animated Gifs


When a horse trots, do all four of its hooves ever leave the ground at once? At one time, we not only had no answer to that ques­tion, we had no way of find­ing out. But in 1872, when the mat­ter piqued the curios­i­ty of Leland Stan­ford, tycoon, for­mer gov­er­nor of Cal­i­for­nia, co-founder of Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty, and race-horse own­er, it did so at just the right time. Hav­ing made a bet on the answer, Stan­ford called on an Eng­lish pho­tog­ra­ph­er named Ead­weard Muy­bridge, known for his work in such then-cut­ting-edge sub­fields as time-lapse and stere­og­ra­phy, and tasked him with fig­ur­ing it out. Using a series of cam­eras acti­vat­ed by trip wires as the horse trot­ted past, Muy­bridge proved that all four of its hooves do indeed leave the ground, win­ning Stan­ford the wager.


But that only began his ground­break­ing work in motion pho­tog­ra­phy, which made it so, in the words of the Library of Con­gress, “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.”


He lat­er devel­oped what he called the Zooprax­is­cope: “One insert­ed a disc with images around the edge into the device, which rotat­ed and pro­ject­ed the images onto a screen. The discs were usu­al­ly paint­ed glass based on Muybridge’s pho­tographs. The effect was to give the audi­ence an impres­sion of move­ment, bring­ing Muybridge’s work to life.” Imag­ine how that would have looked to some­one who’d nev­er seen — who’d nev­er even imag­ined — organ­ic-look­ing move­ment in man­made art?

You can see 93 of Muy­bridge’s mov­ing pho­tographs, zooprax­is­cope discs, and oth­er exper­i­ments in decod­ing the move­ment of liv­ing things and grant­i­ng it to images at Wiki­me­dia Com­mons. “Although Ead­weard Muy­bridge thought of him­self pri­mar­i­ly as an artist, he encour­aged the aura of sci­en­tif­ic inves­ti­ga­tion that sur­round­ed his project,” says the site of Freeze Frame, the Nation­al Muse­um of Amer­i­can His­to­ry’s exhi­bi­tion of his work. It makes sense that Muy­bridge, who qual­i­fied as an eccen­tric as well as a genius, would occu­py the space between art and sci­ence, inquiry and cre­ation, real­i­ty and illu­sion — and it makes sense to view the fruits of his labors as ani­mat­ed GIFs, their tech­no­log­i­cal descen­dants that also looked pret­ty impres­sive, so I recall, when first we laid eyes on them.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Was a 32,000-Year-Old Cave Paint­ing the Ear­li­est Form of Cin­e­ma?

The His­to­ry of the Movie Cam­era in Four Min­utes: From the Lumiere Broth­ers to Google Glass

Watch the Films of the Lumière Broth­ers & the Birth of Cin­e­ma (1895)

One Tril­lion Frames Per Sec­ond: The Sci­ence of Cap­tur­ing Light in Motion

Thomas Edison’s Box­ing Cats (1894), or Where the LOL­Cats All Began

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Kendra Leonard says:

    Top image: it’s a gal­lop­ing horse, not a trot­ting one. A trot is slow­er than a gal­lop, and you can see how many hooves are on the ground at once with the naked eye. This is much hard­er to see in the fast gal­lop, hence Muy­bridge’s exper­i­ment.

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