Commentary Magazine


Godfather of Film

Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) is one of those men who, along with Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, made the modern world—for what is more characteristic of the modern world than motion pictures? For his sequential photographs of leaping horses, made in the 1870′s for California governor Leland Stanford, and his monumental Animal Locomotion (1887), Muybridge is justly regarded as the godfather of the movie. And yet for a generation he has been the victim of sustained academic calumny. Two events this month make clear the extent of this injustice.

The first is the publication of Marta Braun’s Picturing Time: The Work of Etienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904), a study of Muybridge’s French counterpart. The subject of a respectful New York Times review, Braun’s book argues that Marey was the true innovator, in contrast to Muybridge, who supposedly manipulated his images to make them more pleasing and to ensure that they reinforced Victorian sexual stereotypes. This is a theme that Braun has been restating since her 1984 article “Muybridge’s Scientific Fictions,” which has become the prevailing scholarly wisdom.

In that article, Braun made much of the fact that Muybridge photographed women in domestic settings—sweeping, pouring tea, getting out of bed. She implies that Muybridge could see women only as housewives (or objects of sexual fantasy), and that this lessens the value of his work. In truth, it is remarkable how liberated Muybridge’s women are. They are also shown jumping over hurdles, throwing baseballs, leaping over sawhorses—activities conveniently ignored by Braun (and the scholars who cite her, not subjecting her work to the same skepticism that she brought to Muybridge’s). That her interpretation should become the prevailing wisdom, enshrined even at the National Museum of American History, says less about Muybridge than it does about the debunking mood of art scholarship in the mid-80′s, when Braun first emerged on the scene.

For an antidote to this sort of reductive scholarship, one turns with pleasure to Equus Unbound, a small but terrific exhibit at the University of Pennsylvania that highlights the activities of Fairman Rogers, the chief sponsor of Muybridge’s motion study experiments. Rogers was an engineering professor and amateur horseman, whose interest in horses was scientific, aesthetic, and social (he was the author of the celebrated Manual of Coaching). The show makes clear that Muybridge was supported in his pioneering work by some of the nation’s leading engineers, biologists, and physicists. It is a first step in removing a generation’s worth of tarnish from Muybridge’s unfairly besmirched reputation.