The long take: slow technology and fast action

Eadweard Muybridge was a man capable of almost anything, including stopping time.

27 October 2022

By Pamela Hutchinson

Nope (2022)
Sight and Sound

In this house, any new film that drops a well-chosen early cinema reference gets a round of applause. Jordan Peele’s new supernatural thriller goes a few decades further by namechecking a timeless piece of pre-cinema, a crucial milestone on the road to moving pictures. In Nope, Keke Palmer plays Emerald, an animal wrangler who pitches her skills to movie-biz clients by claiming to be the descendant of one of Eadweard Muybridge’s unnamed subjects. The animals he photographed with his battery of short-exposure cameras were named, but the humans were identified only by numbers. Emerald highlights the inequality that means the white man behind the camera is better known than the Black man in front of it, and then offers a revisionist view of Black film history. “Since the moment pictures could move, we had skin in the game.” Brava.

Muybridge used slow technology to capture fast action: not for him the flexible coils of celluloid film that could keep pace with movement in front of a camera. That wasn’t invented yet. He used heavy glass plates, freezing a body in motion like a pinned butterfly in a vitrine. Each image in one of his action sequences is derived from an exposure of less than 100th of a second. And each sequence represents an action that lasts just a few seconds, so the twist is that whether we watch them animated by digitisation or projected by Muybridge’s own zoopraxiscope, our brains are not just processing images but creating them, filling in the gaps.

Just like that, scholars, filmmakers and artists have been filling in the gaps between Muybridge’s images for more than a century – creating new works inspired by his pictures, or asking questions about his bizarre body of work, his extraordinary life history. Not for nothing were the optical-illusion gadgets that inspired his own machine known as ‘philosophical toys’.

And why avoid mentioning something of his boggling biography? This Surrey-born Victorian gentleman ventured to California, contorted his original name into a new creation with echoes of Old English and became a self-taught landscape photographer who went to extravagant lengths to make jaw-dropping images: chopping  down trees to improve the view, or posing on a precarious outcrop to add a tiny figure to a stereograph. In between this phase of his career and the next, most famous one, he killed the man who was sleeping with his wife – and literally got away with murder. Muybridge seemed to be a man who was capable of almost anything, including stopping time itself.

Exposing Muybridge (2021)

A new documentary, Exposing Muybridge (Marc Shaffer, 2021) pays tribute to the man’s technological ingenuity and melodramatic life, but also asks exactly the kind of questions that Emerald raises about his compelling images. About the poses and actions Muybridge asked his models to perform in the nude: athletic feats for the men, but tea parties and domestic tasks for the women. And then the occasional, baffling bout of bath-time slapstick. About why the famous background grid was introduced when Muybridge came to photograph a Black man – a grid just like the ones used for racist ethnographic studies.

Arguably, Muybridge’s ethical elasticity, which first emerged with felling trees to sell postcards of the Yosemite Valley, had more serious consequences for the human subjects he photographed. What the documentary lingers on, in particular, is how much of Muybridge’s monumental 1887 collection ‘Animal Locomotion: an Electro-Photographic Investigation of Consecutive Phases of Animal Movements’ was anything but scientific. Whimsical, intimate, comical: the bodies are sometimes shown in action, sometimes still, occasionally augmented by ink lines, other times arranged in symmetrical patterns that look pleasing on the page.

Muybridge invented a new way of looking at the world, as well as a new way of understanding motion. The documentary closes with a collection of works inspired by Muybridge, from paintings by Francis Bacon to the introduction of ‘bullet time’ in The Matrix (The Wachowskis, 1999). We might contribute more direct connections, including Thom Andersen’s 1975 essay film Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer, with its dry narration by Dean Stockwell and pioneering animations; George Snow’s hypnotic Muybridge Revisited (1986, available to view on BFI Player); Rebecca Solnit’s 2003 book River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West. And now, Nope.

Muybridge’s work is in the very DNA of cinema, as Peele makes evident. In 2020, Muybridge’s hometown of Kingston upon Thames had a year of celebrations that were planned to commemorate the 190th anniversary of his birth. Of course, the pandemic interfered with the events, but on YouTube you can enjoy a short dance piece by BalletBoyz in homage to Muybridge which made a virtue out of that challenge. Recorded on Zoom, and edited using split-screens, superimpositions and mirroring, Motion reimagines Muybridge’s grid, and the movements of his models, in a medium he might never have dreamed of – but is yet another one of his distant descendants.

The new issue of Sight and Sound

Hamaguchi Ryūsuke: insights on and from the Japanese auteur Plus: Mica Levi on their innovative score for The Zone of Interest – Víctor Erice interviewed about his masterful return to feature filmmaking, Close Your Eyes – a festival report from a politically charged Berlinale

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