Our mechanized existence


James Polchin on the history and relevancy of 19th century photographer Eadweard Muybridge @ The Smart Set. In her book Motion Studies: Time, Space and Eadweard Muybridge, Rebecca Solnit writes that one of the most common phrases of the late 19th century was “the annihilation of time and space.” The steamship, the telegraph, the railroad — what Emerson called “one web” of a “thousand various threads” — and the photograph each played a role in destroying older notions of time and place.

You can’t get better evidence for this burdensome body than the photographs that Muybridge made of Leland Stanford’s white racehorse Occident. The animal’s body was carved into a sequence of 24 silhouetted images that record the graceful form of the animal’s gait. These motion studies, as they are known, were a first of their kind and were a precursor to the moving image. Because of Muybridge’s motion studies, we learned that for a split second, a galloping horse has all four hooves off the ground — a reality never witnessed before. Muybridge photographed Occident at Stanford’s Palo Alto estate in the spring of 1872 with the aim of improving the racehorse’s performance. Using a sequence of cameras set along a marked path, Muybridge transformed the body of the animal into an object frozen in time to be studied and improved. The symbolic force of the railroad millionaire turning his prized racehorse into a series of mechanical images cannot be overstated. And it was Muybridge who enacted this feat of industrial will.

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