March 14, 1996
arts@large / By MATTHEW MIRAPAUL
Dicovery's Tribute Offersadweard Muybridge, the innovative photographer who died in 1904, is alive again on the World Wide Web.
Both History and Metaphor
Muybridge was the first to capture human and animal movement in a series of still pictures. His experiments with a row of cameras triggered by a striding steed proved that a horse could "fly" by showing the instant that all four of its legs were in the air.
He later took his progressions of true-life images and applied them to a projection device he invented called the zoopraxiscope, creating in 1879 what could be considered the first real movie.
Muybridge applied his ingenuity to the technology of the time to revolutionize how we see the world. Today, two Web sites are doing much the same to revolutionize the way we see Muybridge, stringing together his chains of frozen frames and bringing them back to life.
At the Discovery Channel Online, a Webzine [d.] produced by the cable programmer, a biographical site devoted to Muybridge automatically sets in motion some of his brief sequences, including images of a bird flapping its wings. (Six slightly longer series can be downloaded and run with video-player software.)
And at the home page for Pacific Media Interactive, a television and Internet content provider, a tribute to Muybridge and other "new media pioneers" uses Shockwave software to animate three of his motion studies.
Although the unconventional Muybridge would refuse to take a picture if it did not suit his taste, he was an inventor, not an aesthetic visionary. His historic but static, nearly clinical photographs have always seemed to belong in textbooks rather than museums, even if their documentary qualities did greatly influence Thomas Eakins and other painters.
Yet those willing to wait two or three minutes for a page to load or a file to fill will see the significance of his technical artistry as reality is recreated onscreen, almost as if Muybridge were demonstrating the zoopraxiscope for an audience a century ago.
The experience is unusually well-suited to the Web. The steps of Muybridge's subjects stutter and limbs jerk, so the moving images look like every bandwidth-choked video available now on the Internet. And, for a change, eye-catching action is purposefully employed for education instead of promotion.
To expose musculature, and perhaps as much to poke at Victorian sensibilities, Muybridge photographed athletes, soldiers, workmen and others in various states of undress. If small, grainy images of a bare-breasted 19th Century woman, for example, might cause offense, avoid these sites.
For someone limited to black-and-white photography, Muybridge was a colorful character. Born Edward James Muggeridge in Kingston-on-Thames, England, in 1830, he changed his name twice after moving to the United States at age 21, ultimately settling on Eadweard Muybridge (pronounced ED-wurd MY- bridge).
He set up shop in San Francisco, where his professional success attracted the attention of the railroad magnate Leland Stanford, who bankrolled many of his experiments. Muybridge married a woman half his age, but upon discovering that his son, Floredo Helios, was not his own, he shot dead his wife's lover. Against his wishes, his lawyers entered a plea of insanity, but Muybridge was acquitted on grounds of justifiable homicide.
Further details of Muybridge's life and career are accessible through the Web sites, but both are primarily concerned with suggesting parallels between the achievements of Muybridge and the efforts of today's software developers to show motion on the Internet.
Peter Esmonde, technology editor of the Discovery Channel Online and author of its Muybridge site, said: "Our Muybridge piece is really part of an ongoing series on media history. Starting Saturday, we'll be running a lengthy story about the Lumiere brothers," early cinema pioneers.
"It's part of an ongoing effort to educate people about mass media, in the hope that they'll bring a more critical eye to what they see on the Web," Esmonde said. "If they learn how the technology creates a grammar and an aesthetic, they'll be better able to assess the messages coming at them through their PCs.
Esmonde, a filmmaker by training, described Muybridge's aesthetic, which he said is largely taken for granted now: "The left- to-right layout of his sequential images assumed that gesture and movement would be 'read,' much like any other language."
"Muybridge's images fragmented time and space," he continued, "but he trusted that the viewer's sense of temporal continuity would be maintained, and that the studies -- some of which contain images from three camera angles and may not be truly sequential -- would be read as a coherent whole."
"It seems intuitive to us today," he said, "but I'd argue that standard Hollywood film grammar grew out of his work. He may not have been the father of motion pictures -- it's easier to think of him as their eccentric old uncle -- but he established a way of representing movement through time that the next century took as a gospel truth, and confused with reality."
Michael Linder, president of Pacific Interactive Media, is perhaps best known as the creator and executive producer of the TV show "America's Most Wanted," his own attempt to recreate reality through on-location reconstructions of crimes.
"As a student of mass media, I consider as my mentors people like Muybridge, the early filmmakers in Silent-Era Hollywood, pioneering broadcasters like Klaus Landsberg (who brought commercial television to the West Coast), Marconi and others," Linder said. "They pushed the envelope on the media of their day, and I believe their artistic solutions are just as viable and meaningful to those of us pioneering on the Net.
"Eadweard Muybridge was out there, big time. He was an amazing man with vision and the ability to locate financing for some very big-ticket experiments before Edison ever began tinkering with the movies.
As for himself, Linder said,: "As a producer who's always had a secret dream to return to late 19th-Century or early 20th-Century America for a walk-around, the notion of animating pre-motion- picture stills was too good to pass up.
Linder said that the idea for a Muybridge presentation struck him after he saw a demonstration of Shockwave: "Here was more than the gratuitous use of animation we're seeing on the Net today. Here was a tool to make the past come alive."
Linder was able to use Shockwave because his site was launched in January, a few months after The Discovery Channel's, which relies no less successfully on "older" QuickTime code.
Just as Edison's Kinetoscope supplanted the zoopraxiscope, so too will future technology eventually replace these programs as Web developers continue to strive to make the Internet experience seem more "lifelike."
Eadweard Muybridge retired to England and died in his garden while digging a model of the Great Lakes, as always trying to recreate reality. One hundred years ago, he changed the way we see the world. Today, he is helping to change how we see the Web.
arts@large is published weekly, on Thursdays. Click here for links to other columns in this series.
Following are links to the external Web sites mentioned in this article. These sites are not part of The New York Times on the Web, and The Times has no control over their content or availability. When you have finished visiting any of these sites, you will be able to return to this page by clicking on your Web browser's "Back" button or icon until this page reappears.
The Discovery Channel Online's biography of Eadweard Muybridge begins here. Click on the red figures. "Smoke, Light and Mirrors," about the Lumieres, launches Saturday.
The Pacific Interactive Media Home Page is the starting point for "Berserkistan," the Bosnia news site, as well as the "new media pioneer" series. The Muybridge site links to the Kingston Museum's biography of him.
Shockwave, which requires the Netscape 2.0 browser to run, can be downloaded from Macromedia's site.
Matthew Mirapaul at firstname.lastname@example.org welcomes your comments and suggestions.
Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company