One particularly exhaustive collection in the city is that of The Midland Hotel’s Wyverne Restaurant. Here in the Wyverne (every Midland hotel has a Wyverne restaurant) is the work of photographer Eadweard Muybridge.
Born Edward Muggeridge, Muybridge was a man fascinated by motion, particularly that of the natural world and his sequential photography captured both humans and animals at various stages of movement. These studies proved that for a brief moment during its run all four of a horse’s hooves are in the air at once.
The method Muybridge employed was an early form of animation and he was a pioneer in his field, inventing the first movie projector - the zoopraxiscope (directly translated as “animal action viewer”) in 1879.
Muybridge didn’t stop at his famous galloping horse, he borrowed many different exotic animals from zoos and temporarily took over an entire racetrack in Philadelphia to use as a studio. Muybridge was a vital link between the practices of art and science and his models were captured in all manner of poses so that movement could be fully studied and understood. Often he made his human subjects walk on all fours and the stilted nature of these particular sequences when animated recreates all the eeriness of a Victorian freak show.
Originally a successful bookseller, it was on the suggestion of his doctor when recuperating from a runaway stagecoach incident that Muybridge began to learn professional photography.
In his ‘flying studio’ (a wagon fitted with a darkroom) Muybridge travelled America documenting natural wonders and exhibiting under the pseudonym of Helios. It was whilst in America that he married Flora, a woman half his age, and together they had a son, Florado Helios. Upon discovering letters between Flora and art critic Major Harry Larkyns wherein Florado is spoken of as ‘Little Harry’, Muybridge became certain that he was not the father of Florado and, prone to risky deeds and emotional explosions as he was, plotted the murder of Larkyns. Tracing Larkyns to his home, Muybridge declared that he had come to deliver his reply to the letter sent to his wife. Muybridge then raised his gun and promptly shot him.
Leland Stanton; a railroad baron who had, immediately prior to the murder, commissioned Muybridge to prove the theory of the airborne horses found and funded Muybridge’s legal representation and even though Muybridge pleaded insanity he was instead acquitted on the rather shaky grounds of “justifiable homicide”.
After he was acquitted Muybridge’s wife soon became ill and died. Muybridge, owing his freedom to his employer, then abandoned his son in an orphanage to concentrate on his motion studies. His eventual successes in the field overshadowed his criminal activity but when Stanton failed to credit Muybridge in the official findings of the study it led to a life plagued by accusations of plagiarism.
Muybridge’s story has been documented in an opera by Philip Glass titled The Photographer, with lyrics from David Byrne.
A version of this article was first published in Twenty Two Magazine (issue two).