Early life and career
Muybridge was born Edward James Muggeridge at Kingston upon Thames, England. He is believed to have changed his first name to match that of King Eadweard as shown on the plinth of the Kingston coronation stone, which was re-erected in Kingston in 1850. Muggeridge became Muygridge and then Muybridge after he had emigrated to the United States in the early 1850s.
View Eadweard Muybridge's photos of native Americans in the Yosemite Valley, free from the Modesto Bee.
In 1855 Muybridge arrived in San Francisco, starting his career as a publisher's agent and bookseller. He developed an interest in photography that seems to have been boosted when he was recovering in England after nearly being killed in a stagecoach crash in 1860. By 1866, Muybridge returned to San Francisco and joined up with a local photo business. It has been suggested that he acted as an assistant to landscape photographer Carleton E. Watkins, but there is little evidence of this.
Photographing the West
Muybridge began to build his reputation in 1867 with photos of Yosemite and San Francisco (many of the Yosemite photographs reproduced the same scenes taken by Watkins). Muybridge quickly became famous for his landscape photographs, which showed the grandeur and expansiveness of the West. The images were published under the pseudonym “Helios.” In the summer of 1868 Muybridge was commissioned to photograph one of the U.S. Army's expeditions into the recently territorialized Alaska purchase.
In 1871 the California Geological Survey invited Muybridge to photograph for the High Sierra survey. That same year he married Flora Stone. He then spent several years traveling as a successful photographer. By 1873 the Central Pacific Railroad had advanced into Indian territory and the United States Army hired Muybridge to photograph the ensuing Modoc Wars.
Stanford and the gallop question
In 1872, soon-to-be Governor of California Leland Stanford, a businessman and race-horse owner, had taken a position on a popularly-debated question of the day: whether during a horse's gallop, all four hooves were ever off the ground at the same time. Stanford sided with this assertion, called "unsupported transit", and took it upon himself to prove it scientifically. (Though legend also includes a wager of up to $25,000, there is no evidence of this.) Stanford sought out Muybridge and hired him to settle the question. Muybridge's relationship with Stanford was long and torrid, and it would ultimately prove to be his entrance and exit from the history books.
To prove Stanford's claim, Muybridge developed a scheme for instantaneous motion picture capture. Muybridge's technology involved chemical formulas for photographic processing and an electrical trigger created by Stanford's electrical engineer, John D. Issacs.
In 1877, Muybridge settled Stanford's question with a single photographic negative showing Stanford's racehorse Occident airborne during gallop. This negative has not survived, although woodcuts made of it did.
By 1878, spurred on by Stanford to expand the experiment, Muybridge had successfully photographed a horse in fast motion using a series of fifty cameras. The cameras were arranged along a track parallel to the horse's, and each of the camera shutters was controlled by a trip wire which was triggered by the horse's hooves.
This series of photos, taken at what is now Stanford University, is called The Horse in Motion, and shows that the hooves all leave the ground — although not with the legs fully extended forward and back, as contemporary illustrators tended to imagine, but rather 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. The photographs also show that each hoof hits the ground just as another is leaving it, so a horse at full gallop is indeed deriving traction from only one hoof at a time.
In 1874, still living in the San Francisco Bay Area, Muybridge discovered that his wife had a lover, a Major Harry Larkyns. On October 17, 1874, he sought out Larkyns; said, "Good evening, Major, my name is Muybridge and here is the answer to the letter you sent my wife"; and shot and killed him."
Muybridge thought his wife's son had been fathered by Larkyns (although, as an adult, the young man had a remarkable resemblance to Muybridge). He was put on trial for the killing, but acquitted of the killing on the grounds that it was "justifiable homicide." The inquiry interrupted the horse photography experiment, but not Stanford's support of Muybridge; Stanford paid for his criminal defense.
After the acquittal, Muybridge left the U.S. for a time and photographed in Central America, returning in 1877. The son, Florado Helios Muybridge (nicknamed "Floddie" by friends) was placed in an orphanage, and worked as a ranch hand and gardener as an adult. He died at age 69 in 1944, after being hit by a car.
This episode in Muybridge's life is the subject of The Photographer, a 1982 opera by Philip Glass, with words drawn from the trial and Muybridge's letters to his wife.
He then conducted research in order to improve the chemistry of his development methods to better capture motion in his photography. Hoping to capitalize upon the considerable public attention those pictures drew, Muybridge invented the Zoopraxiscope, a machine similar to the Zoetrope, but that projected the images so the public could see realistic motion. The system was, in many ways, a precursor to the development of the motion picture.
Muybridge also authored disks for the phenakistoscope, a parlor toy used to view short motion sequences.
Muybridge used this technique many times to photograph people and animals to study their movement. The people were often photographed in little or no clothing in a variety of undertakings. From boxing, to walking down stairs, and even small children walking to their mother were sufficiently interesting to Muybridge to be the subject of his photographs. In any case, Muybridge's work stands near the beginning of the science of biomechanics and the mechanics of athletics.
Recent scholarship has pointed to the immense influence of Étienne Jules de Marey on Muybridge's work. Muybridge visited de Marey's studio in France and saw Marey's stop-motion studies of animals before returning to the U.S. to further his own work in the same area. However, whereas Marey's scientific achievements in the realms of cardiology, aviation, and aerodynamics (as well as pioneering work in photography and cinema) are indisputable, Muybridge's efforts were distinctly unscientific. In many cases close inspection of his stop motion studies reveal that he has 'cheated', by using either the same images over again or by combining separate sequences to exaggerate effects. Also, his creation of images of nude women in all manner of poses seems rooted in prurient rather than scientific impulses.
Similar setups of carefully timed multiple cameras are used in modern special effects photography with the opposite goal: capturing changing camera angles with little or no movement of the subject.
Eadweard Muybridge returned to his native England in 1894 and died in 1904 in Kingston upon Thames while living at the home of his cousin Catherine Smith, Park View, 2 Liverpool Road. He was cremated and his ashes interred at Woking.