Before Eadweard Muybridge demonstrated that horses could fly, he owned a small bookshop in San Francisco. He was in his mid-30s at this time and had spent just over a decade honing his photographic skills. Soon, his talents would see him capture something humankind had been trying to convey for millennia: life in motion. Muybridge, lest we forget, was the first man to photographs a horse with all four of its legs raised off the ground mid-gallop. While it might seem fairly inconsequential now, Muybridge transformed photography into an art form and a branch of science in one just one-thousandth of a second, all while laying the foundations for arguably the greatest technological marvel of the 19th century, cinema. But, before he could do all that, he needed to be reborn.
On May 15th, 1860, shoppers milling outside Muybridge’s bookstore noticed an advert that the owner had placed in the window. It explained that he’d decided to sell the store and travel to Europe. On his way through Texas, his stagecoach took a sharp turn and tumbled down an arid mountainside into a tree, destroying the coach in the process. One of the seven passengers was killed, while Muybridge was left with head injuries so severe he lost his taste and smell.
His first recollection was of waking up in a hospital in Arkansas, 150 miles from where he and the other passengers had been thrown from the stagecoach. The doctor hovering above him said he’d never recover, and he was right; something changed in Muybridge that day. Like Tony Cicoria (the man who was struck by lightning and woke up with an unusual talent for music), after recuperating in England and returning to the Bay area in 1866, Muybridge became an adept photographer with a razor-sharp eye.
Over the next few years, he became fixated with the implied motion behind his still photographs. He travelled widely, capturing images of birds flying; America’s buffalo galloping across the plains; cats leaping into the air; people raising cigarettes to their lips; and, rather naughtily, women crossing and uncrossing their ankles. All the while, he was adapting photographic technology to suit his needs. While his contemporaries were content with superimposing clouds onto their landscape portraits of the Rocky Mountains or the Great Lakes, Muybridge decided to invent the ‘sky-shade’, a screen that shielded the sun’s rays long enough that early cameras with slow shutter speeds were able to capture both the grand sweeping mountains and the sky above them – no longer a blank sheet of white, but a textured swirl filled with clouds.
Then, one year after marrying a woman half his age, Muybridge was contacted by Leland Stanford, a millionaire with a passion for breeding and racing horses. Having made his fortune bearing the Central Pacific Railroad through the Sierra Nevada mountains, Stanford was obsessed with speed. He believed that if he could understand how horses galloped, he could make his trains run even faster. Muybridge was the man hired for the job. In 1877, the photographer travelled to a race track in San Francisco, where he strung a thread across the course at the height where a horse’s chest might land. When the horse passed and struck the line, it led to a trigger attached to Muybridge’s camera. The result was…disappointing. While Muybridge had succeeded in capturing something no one else had seen before: a horse with all four feet off the ground, it was a single image, and he needed to show the process not the end result in order to satisfy Stanford’s request.
After shooting dead a man he believed to be the father of his child – a crime for which he was eventually acquitted – Muybridge returned to the racecourse. This time, instead of relying on just one camera, he packed a phot shed with a dozen or so. Framing the shot, on the other side of the track, was a blank white wall, and between the two Muybridge coated the dirt with white powder to highlight the horse’s hooves. When the reporters arrived, Muybridge assured them that they were about to witness a feat that would mark the beginning of a new artistic age.
Along the wall, Muybridge had placed a series of wires connected to an electrical circuit that would trigger his camera. The technology had been unimaginable just a year before, but now, as the horses galloped along the track, tripping the lines in swift succession, the circuit was triggered, releasing pressurised rubber springs that clenched the shutter tight in a fraction of a second; one-thousandth to be exact. To ensure that there could be no doubt of the authenticity of the photograph’s, Muybridge developed the images in front of the reporters, revealing 16 images, the first four of which showed the horse lifting all four of its feet off the ground. And with that, everything changed.