Understanding The Lives and Times of Great Photographers

Richard Sadler, Weegee in Coventry, 1963

William Henry Fox Talbot, The Ladder, April 1844

Lady Clementina Hawarden, Isabella Grace and Clementine Maude Hawarden, c.1863

George Davison, Portrait of Mr. Louisa Davison, March 1906

Unknown, Lewis Hine Photographing Children in a Slum, c. 1910

Lewis Hine, Tenement Playground, New York City (1900-1937)

Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dessau, Germany, 1945

Understanding The Lives and Times of Great Photographers

The Lives of Great Photographers is an inspiring exhibition at the National Media Museum in Bradford (UK), which draws on the Museum’s renowned collection to showcase the pioneers behind the camera, exploring the extraordinary stories surrounding some of photography’s most important innovators and artists. It focuses on the work of early photographers who took the initiative to establish photography as an industry during the 19th and 20th centuries. Featuring Henri Cartier-Bresson, Julia Margaret Cameron, Robert Capa, William Henry Fox Talbot, Weegee, Tony Ray-Jones, Fay Godwin and Eadweard Muybridge, the exhibition displays iconic images and artefacts from these and other great names. As technology evolved, the breadth and range of photography increased, and the methods by which it could provide artistic expression became more diverse. The pioneering photographers produced some of the first celebrity photographs in existence, created war/art photography during World War I and produced some of the earliest fashion and advertising photography.

Photography also proved an ideal medium for documenting world events: some of the earliest documentary photographers, including Lewis Hine and Dorothea Lange, were driven by their social consciences to record the Great Depression in America. Photojournalism, the cousin of documentary photography, is represented in the exhibition by artists such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa, founding members of the world’s first photographic agency, Magnum. Both men served in World War II and produced images that helped define an era.

However, while this exhibition considers the lives of photographers as much as their work, to what extent do their photographs reflect the lives, thoughts, feelings or beliefs of the person behind the camera? Although understanding the life and times of a photographer can inform and help to understand their work, it is important not to read too much into a photograph without considering when, and under what situation it was taken. Caution has to be exerted because we can never really know what the photographer was thinking, or feeling when they took the photograph. The danger is that we read something into the image that perhaps doesn’t really exist, except in our own minds.

Brian Liddy has provided an excellent, detailed discussion of some limitations involved in attempts to interpret the lives of great photographers, and uses photographs from this exhibition as examples.

The Lives of Great Photographers

Lives of the Great Photographers: Photographing Conflict

Photo-Gallery: Understanding The Lives and Times of Great Photographers

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Helios: The Pioneering Photography of Eadweard Muybridge

Eadweard Muybridge, Ruins of the Church of San Domingo, Panama, 1875

Eadweard Muybridge, Ruins of a Church, Antigua, Guatemala, 1875

Eadweard Muybridge, The Ramparts, Fisherman’s Bay, South Farallon Island, 1871

Eadweard Muybridge, Lighthouse at Punta de los Reyes, Seacoast of California, 1871

Eadweard Muybridge, Bridge on the Porto Bello, Panama, 1875

Helios: The Pioneering Photography of Eadweard Muybridge

Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change is an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), which presents the first-ever retrospective examination of all aspects of artist Eadweard Muybridge’s pioneering photography. Best known for his groundbreaking studies of animals and humans in motion, what a magnificent photographer Eadweard Muybridge was and what a brilliant eye he had is too often overlooked. In addition to his iconic studies of animals in motion, Muybridge (1830-1904) was also an innovative and successful landscape and survey photographer, documentary artist, inventor and war correspondent.

The works in this exhibition have been brought together from 38 different collections and include a number of Muybridge’s photographs of Yosemite Valley, images of Alaska and the Pacific coast, pictures from Panama and Guatemala and urban panoramas of San Francisco, most of which were published under the pseudonym “Helios.” The exhibition also includes examples from Muybridge’s experimental series of sequential stop-motion photographs, such as his masterpieces The Horse in Motion and Animal Locomotion.

Philip Glass: The Photographer, A Gentleman’s Honor (1983) to Eadweard Muybridge

Eadweard Muybridge: A Stop-Motion Animation

Photo-Gallery: Helios/The Pioneering Photography of Eadweard Muybridge

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Flicker: Animals in Unsupported Transit

Flicker: Animals in Unsupported Transit

Flicker: A Moment in the Life of Eadweard Muybridge

Flicker is a short one-minute experimental film that was directed by Hamish Anderson, a talented young English filmmaker. Flicker is presently on The 2008 Shortlist of Filminute, a juried international one-minute film festival that challenges filmmakers to develop and submit the world’s best one-minute films. Hamish Anderson is a university student who is the son of the British film artist Peter Anderson. Prior to making Flicker, Hamish created a documentary made in Zambia with UNICEF and a three-minute film, Canned Spirit, about an English graffiti artist.

Hamish lives in Oxford, England, and the film set for Flicker was created in his home there. In addition to filmmaking, Anderson’s other creative talents include drawing and design; accordingly, he drew the dogs that appear in the film with a fine black pen, and he also made the zoetrope (the spinning device that shows the drawings of the dogs).

Flicker is a film that uniquely and explicitly reveals an image of artistic convergence. Anderson describes his film as “a filmic representation of a moment in the life of the pioneering photographer, Eadweard Muybridge.” Muybridge is legendary for his “Horse in Motion” high-speed photographs of a trotting horse, which resolved the long-running controversy over whether all of the horse’s four feet ever leave the ground at the same time. The “Horse in Motion” photographs are considered by many in the know to be the world’s first motion pictures.

Curiously, Anderson describes his film as the portrayal of “a moment” in the life of Muybridge, but he doesn’t further specify what he intends that particular moment to be. Actually, Flicker depicts a convergence of moments. At one level, the film could simply be taken as an illustration of “the moment” in which Muybridge was first able to display his photographs as moving pictures. But it’s important to note that Anderson is not displaying Muybridge’s own photographs in his film. Instead, he’s using drawings of Muybridge’s photographs, which in fact replicates another significant “moment” or event that actually took place in Muybridge’s own life.

That “convergent moment” involved the relationship between the mercurial Muybridge and his financial patron, Leland Stanford (a Former California Governor). It was the “moment” in Muybridge’s life when their relationship completely broke down after Stanford commissioned a book called The Horse in Motion as Shown by Instantaneous Photography. That 1882 book omitted the actual photographs that had been taken by Muybridge, relying instead on drawings and engravings based upon the photographs, and at the same time the book gave Muybridge little credit for his work.

Flicker: Animals in Unsupported Transit

Eadweard Muybridge’s Horse in Motion: The World’s First Motion Pictures

The Horse in Motion: Freezing Time

He was one of the most famous people of the 19th century, but the name of Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) is nearly unknown today. In 1855, Muybridge left England and settled in San Francisco, starting his career as a publisher’s agent and bookseller. He left San Francisco at the end of that decade, and after a stagecoach accident in which he received severe head injuries returned to England for a few years. Muybridge reappeared in San Francisco in 1866 and rapidly became successful in the photography profession, focusing almost entirely on landscape and architectural subjects.

In 1872, the former Governor of California Leland Stanford, a businessman and race-horse owner, had taken a stance about a then popularly-debated question of the day: whether all four of a horse’s hooves left the ground at the same time during a gallop. Stanford sided with the assertion that they did, an idea called “unsupported transit“, and took it upon himself to prove it scientifically. To prove Stanford’s claim, Muybridge developed a new photographic technique that facilitated instantaneous motion picture capture. In 1877, Muybridge settled Stanford’s question with a single photographic negative that showed Stanford’s racehorse Occident airborne in the midst of a gallop.

By 1878, encouraged by Leland Stanford to expand his experiment, Muybridge had successfully photographed a horse in fast motion using a series of twenty-four cameras. The first public demonstration of his new moving picture technique successfully took place on June 11th, and it was attended by members of the press. Muybridge used a series of 12 stereoscopic cameras, set 21 inches apart to cover the 20 feet taken by one horse stride, taking pictures at one thousandth of a second. The cameras were arranged parallel to the track, with trip-wires attached to each camera shutter that were triggered by the horse’s hooves.

This series of photos is known as The Horse in Motion, and it shows that the hooves do all leave the ground, although not with the legs fully extended forward and back, as contemporary illustrators had tended to imagine. Rather, it occurred at the moment when all the hooves are tucked under the horse, as it switches from “pulling” from the front legs to “pushing” from the back legs.

Few people remember that those photos were just a beginning for Muybridge. Through further work, he was able to develop his new technology so that it took the extended series of images and transformed them into the first moving pictures. Twenty years before Thomas Edison popularized his own projector, Muybridge was filling auditoriums across the United States and Europe with audiences eager to see the first motion pictures. Later, Edison did all that he could to obscure the true origins of the cinema, in order to protect his own patents.

Horse in Motion: The World’s First Motion Pictures

3D Computer Graphics: The Horse in Motion

The Photographer: A Gentleman’s Honor

In 1874, while still living in the San Francisco Bay Area, Muybridge found a letter that had been sent to his wife, a letter revealing that she had a lover, a certain Major Harry Larkyns. On October 17, 1874, he sought out Larkyns, saying to him, “Good evening, Major, my name is Muybridge and here is the answer to the letter you sent my wife.” Muybridge then killed the Major with a gunshot. He was put on trial for murder, but was acquitted by the jury with a verdict of “justifiable homicide.”

An interesting aspect of Muybridge’s defense was a plea of insanity due to the head injury Muybridge had sustained years earlier in his stagecoach accident. His friends testified in court that the accident had dramatically changed Muybridge’s personality from genial and pleasant, to unstable and erratic. Although the jury dismissed the insanity plea, it is not unlikely that Muybridge did experience some emotional changes due the earlier head injury. This episode in Muybridge’s life was the subject of The Photographer, a well-known 1982 opera by Philip Glass, with words that were drawn from the trial and from Muybridge’s own letters to his wife.

Philip Glass: The Photographer/A Gentleman’s Honor

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