We studied Eadweard Muybridge for a minute in my high school humanities class. Naturally, the content on his work centered on the galloping horse photographs and Animal Locomotion, the photographer’s massive study of human and animal motion. There was a brief mention that he laid the groundwork for motion pictures.
And that was it for Eadweard Muybridge in that class. I saw those photographs again in a photography for non-majors course in college.
There was so much more to his story. Before the motion studies, he was a well-established photographer whose images of Yosemite were very popular. He photographed the construction of the Southern Pacific railroad and the Modoc campaign.
Beyond his photography, Muybridge had an interesting and scandalous life involving betrayal and murder and more betrayal. It’s the stuff melodramas are made of.
Freezing Time, by Keith Stern, attempts to capture Muybridge’s story. The book presents itself as an autobiography, which serves the story well when it comes to the technological aspects of photography and its advances.
When it comes to the dramatic aspects of Muybridge’s life, the autobio perspective is serviceable at best. At times, it felt like coldly checking off a list of events, but it moves along because those events are inherently so fantastic.
The professor in that college photography class made a comment that stuck with me for years. In response to a student marveling over Ansel Adams’ work, he said:
“When you photograph majestic, awe-inspiring subjects, you’re going to get majestic, awe-inspiring photographs.”
That guy really hated Ansel Adams.
Eadweard Muybridge is that sort of subject. Anything written about his life will be interesting to read because his life was interesting. Muybridge did all the work for us. What I hoped for from Freezing Time was more of a sense of why. Why did Muybridge make photographs so obsessively? What was he trying to capture? Looking at photos of him, there’s a darkness under all that hair…what is driving this man?
Even in an autobio format, there must be some hints of these things.
Despite the lack of pathos, Freezing Time was an enjoyable read – I read the entire thing in an afternoon. Like I said, Muybrigde’s life is interesting, so the story moves.
Cheese Rating Scale: domestic camembert. Similar in flavor and texture to actual camembert, but lacking in richness and depth. Still a nice, affordable addition to your cheeseboard.