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Exposing Muybridge – a surprising, provocative documentary

Marc Shaffer tells us about his 10-year journey to create Exposing Muybridge – a documentary about how one man, a camera and a horse changed the world.

The Horse in Motion by Eadweard Muyrbidge
Horse in Motion – one of the first two published photographs of sequential motion by Eadweard Muybridge, courtesy of Exposing Muybridge

An award-winning documentary tells the story of photographic pioneer Eadweard Muybridge. Exposing Muybridge offers a new visual take on Muybridge’s 1878 breakthrough and what came next.

Following domestic and international premieres at Doc NYC and Sheffield DocFest, the film is available to pre-order on iTunes in the USA and Canada now.

It is screening at Bertha DOCHouse, London, from August 12 to August 14.

We talk to producer Marc Shaffer about the 19th-century photographer with a 21st century story, recreating Muybridge’s iconic shot and plans for a photobook.

Alluring images

Shaffer began working on the story of Eadweard Muybridge a decade ago.

His interest was sparked while working on another film about the early Jewish community of San Francisco.

“My archivists started bringing me photographs and there were some that always seemed to catch my eye. They were alluring and kind of seductive.

“I’m very curious by nature, that’s why I do what I do. And so I saw the name of the photographer that I didn’t recognise and I punched it into Google.

“Suddenly, I’m looking at a million-and-a half hits and I realised, wow, this guy’s a really big deal. And I’m in the Bay Area and I don’t even know his name.”

Shaffer realised he recognised some of Muybridge’s motion photography and his interest was sparked.

When he read Rebecca Solnit’s River of Shadows he was hooked.

“It was just an unbelievable story. Light bulbs went off in my head, and I said, ‘I can make this film’.”

A pioneer of moving imagery

Shaffer describes Muybridge as the ‘most important pioneer of moving imagery’.

While he was not the only photographer experimenting with motion picture at the time, he was the one to break the speed barrier.

“He figured out a way to make the glacially slow, wet plate photography of his time move fast enough to see a galloping horse.

“It’s hard to imagine now, but back then that was just an extraordinary breakthrough.

“If you think of old photographs, even later vintage photographs, often people are blurry. Even if they’re posing, their face will be a little blurry.

“That’s because exposures were so long. The photographer would take the lens cap off and sit there for seconds, or in some cases minutes, letting the light get through to the camera and then close the lens cap.

“There were even devices that held the head in place so you wouldn’t move but people moved and they got blurred.

“So imagine being asked by Leland Stanford to see a galloping horse run past. It was really an insane request.”

Muybridge photographed near Yosemite
Muybridge photographed near Yosemite, 1872, courtesy of Exposing Muybridge

Illuminated pictures in motion

Shaffer says a common misconception about Muybridge is that he made movies when in fact he made cartoons.

“If he projected the photos themselves, his technology had these little glass discs that spun in front of what was called a magic lantern or a projector light.

“There were optical distortions that would shrink the images so they would look wrong.

“What he did is, he took his images is and gave them to artists and the artists would draw or paint facsimiles that were stretched out.

“They were elongated so, when the optical distortion occurred, they would look right. That is what you’re seeing when you watch these old Muybridge films.”

This zoopraxiscope process allowed the unsettling awkwardness of the single frames to melt into the familiar grace of a horse galloping.

The resulting ‘illuminated pictures in motion’ captivated audiences.

For Shaffer, Muybridge is the ‘beginning of now’ and modern picture storytelling.

“He very much speaks to who we are today, his work is embedded in the DNA of our culture.

“The kinds of things he does, as a historical figure, really are so familiar to a modern audience.

“I don’t want to spoil the film for people, but a lot of the things that we are concerned about today with imagery and representation of reality are all present in Muybridge’s work.

“You find these tensions between art and and reality, or fabrication and documentation, are embedded in Muybridge’s work.

“He just has so much to teach us about ourselves. He’s not a dusty relic, he’s not this piece of the past that we look back on with curiosity.”

Breaking down motion studies

A particular challenge during the making of Exposing Muybridge was the motion studies.

Each study can be made up of hundreds or thousands of individual images.

When those individual images are zoomed in on or cropped they degrade and pixelate.

Shaffer worked with Richard Everett and his team at the Wellcome Collection to re-photograph details of Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion photogram from their collection.

“I identified the images I wanted shot, I showed exactly how I wanted them shot, I put little squares around the images.

“They shot photographs and details of the larger plates, so that I could show just this one image or just this one corner of the woman’s face laughing.

“The motion sequence required taking individual frames, making them the picture and then animating them which I couldn’t do using a whole one, so the Wellcome Trust were really phenomenal partners on this.”

Another challenge was recreating Muybridge’s iconic 1878 image of the running horse.

Shaffer wanted to recreate the image but using modern technology and referencing the bullet time special effect from The Matrix.

“I had this idea, this crazy idea for a documentary filmmaker with documentary budgets, to reproduce the horse in bullet time to do this meta reference that nobody would get but me.

“And so I went to great trouble and expense to produce that that image. And you do see it twice in the film.”

Plans for a photobook

While making Exposing Muybridge Shaffer collected a unique library of more than 1,000 high-quality Muybridge photographs.

They range from his earliest landscapes in 1867 through to the last of his motion studies 20 years later.

Now, he is hoping to publish a photobook celebrating these iconic images.

“You can learn a lot about Edward Muybridge. There’s many books, there’s a million articles.

“But the vast majority is text based, which is kind of a crime for a visual artist.

“That’s one of the things that made me want to make the movie – I felt his story should be told in pictures.”

Shaffer received support from private collectors, archives, museums and collections.

Images were rescanned or photographed at exceptionally high resolution to reveal Muybridge’s work in rarely-seen clarity.

It is these images Shaffer hopes to celebrate in a new photobook.

Muybridge photographed dangling 3,000 feet from Yosemite valley floor
Muybridge photographed dangling 3,000 feet from Yosemite valley floor, 1872. Courtesy of Exposing Muybridge

Eadweard Muybridge

Eadweard Muybridge was born Edward James Muggeridge in 1830.

The son of coal and corn dealers who ran barges on the river Thames from their home in Kingston, he dreamed of more than a life in the family business.

He reportedly declared to his grandmother that he would make a name for himself or never be heard from again.

At 20 years old he set sail for New York to sell fine art books, moving five years later to San Francisco and opening his own bookstore.

In his landscapes, Muybridge captured the American West as it was undergoing a radical political, social, economic and technological transition.

In 1878, he made his last great landscape work – a 13-plate panorama perfectly encircling a burgeoning San Francisco.

That was also the year he published the first of his trailblazing photographs of motion.

His ground-breaking work made him a celebrity and he travelled to Europe to lecture in front of the most respected artists and scientists of the time.

However, his time in London came to ‘a disastrous close’ when he was betrayed by his patron Leland Stanford.

His career was rescued when the University of Pennsylvania offered to sponsor new motion studies.

It was here Muybridge produced his magnum opus, Animal Locomotion.

Muybridge returned to England at the end of his life and is buried at Woking Crematorium.

Today, Muybridge’s legacy can still be seen in cinema and scientific breakthroughs.

Where to watch Exposing Muybridge

Exposing Muybridge is available on demand in the US and Canada from August 2.

Pre-order your copy here.

It is hoped a UK general release date will be announced shortly.

Keep up to date with the latest news and where to view the film here.

Watch it at at Bertha DOCHouse, London, from August 12 to August 14.