THE COMPLEAT EADWEARD MUYBRIDGE: BRIAN CLEGG BOOK-REVIEW


The Man Who Stopped Time, at last

In his Amazon blog, under the above title, popular science author Brian Clegg tells us: "After a long wait, the Man Who Stopped Time has been published...Seeing the finished book for the first time is quite emotional: it's the realization of a long process as something I can hold in my hands."

I first became aware of The Man Who Stopped Time when it had a slightly different title and a different cover. And yes, it does seem a long time since the book was announced. But then Robert Haas's biography of Muybridge was announced as 'just completed' in 1963 (his research started in 1952), and in fact didn't appear until 1976, and there was a similar gestation period for Gordon Hendricks's book. So a couple of years' wait for Brian Clegg's The Man Who Stopped Time. The Illuminating Story of Eadweard Muybridge- Pioneer Photographer, Father of the Motion Picture, Murderer didn't seem so bad, especially with so much promised. Clegg's website popularscience.co.uk explains about these earlier efforts: 'There are books certainly, but they lose the man behind the photographs; they are picture books with text. They feel (sic) to bring out the real story.'

To dismiss the Haas and Hendricks books as 'picture books with text' - each is based on, and both succinctly incorporate, half a lifetime's research - could be considered arrogant. And the widespread distribution of Muybridge's pictures (which, apart from the Animal Locomotion photographs, were not generally available previously) through those two publications, did much to create the interest in the man, from which Brian Clegg's book will benefit.

Clegg's website tells us that he has written four popular science books. A Brief History of Infinity reached #1 position on Amazon in the general Popular Science category, so clearly he is well established in the field. The only other book of Clegg's that I have read is Light Years. An Exploration of Mankind's Enduring Fascination with Light (2001). This included a couple of pages on Muybridge, explaining that 'the flamboyant photographer mounted his sequence of photographs on great display boards and set off across the Atlantic to begin a European lecture tour'. It seems that Clegg's Muybridge research wasn't well advanced at that time.

So how did the research eventually proceed? A page on Brian Clegg's personal website tells of his trek to Muybridge's final abode in Kingston, where the present occupier failed to answer the doorbell. Another 'news' item announces the discovery at the Royal Society of Francis Galton's important report on Muybridge's lecture text - which I've had in my Muybridge folder for a decade, since it was sent to me by film historian Richard Brown; it's noted in the Kingston Museum Bequest book.

If you're reading this Mr Clegg, you can stop flinching now. That's almost the end of my negative carping. As stated in this book, '...there are few artists or writers who haven't found it necessary to be effusive about their own work when producing a "puff."' What matters is the quality of the book, and The Man Who Stopped Time is an excellent and much needed popular biography of an enduring character. Clegg explains: "What I've tried to do in this book is open up the science behind Muybridge's work, but always keeping it as a story of a fascinating man. I hope that's what comes across." I think it does.

In each case the technical explanations take up a couple of pages or so, written in an accessible style, and this is just enough to put across an accurate and helpful dose of the necessary science and technology.

Subjects explored include the camera obscura, the origins of photography and its early chemistry, stereoscopes, photographic enlargement, microphotography, the Francis Galton eugenics connection, and other subjects not related to image-making; including a discussion of monogamy.

The description of anamorphic distortion - the images on the Zoopraxiscope discs needed to be elongated in production, as they were compressed on projection - is good so far as it goes, explaining that this particular variety of the effect specifically relates to images seen by way of moving slots, but doesn't give the name of this unusual type of anamorphosis; anorthoscopic distortion. (The anorthoscope and its associated images, designed to demonstrate this effect, date back to Joseph Plateau's early experiments.) An account of the history of aspect ratios, prompted by an explanation of anamorphic photography is again well written, but could have mentioned that Muybridge's Zoopraxiscope, perhaps uniquely, has sliding metal side plates, enabling the shape of the projected image to be changed at will.

I was especially pleased to find a modern description of motion perception in place of the usual 'persistence of vision' stuff, and I learned quite a lot about the latest thinking concerning stereoscopic vision.

The author has concentrated on the murder - 30 pages on the trial alone, and many more on Larkyns and Flora - and this dramatic and well documented episode, carefully interpreted, certainly does help to flesh out Muybridge the man.

I like Clegg's writing style. He is, I think, the first to comment in print on the enigmatic differences between the known photographs of Muybridge's wife. He describes one photograph of a pregnant Flora as 'uncomfortingly reminiscent of the cut-out animations Terry Gilliam provided for Monty Python's Flying Circus. It's tempting to expect her top half to open up, as if hinged, and the baby to pop out'.

The technical details of the sequence photography, at both Palo Alto and Pennsylvania - the kind of sections that general readers often skip - are described in a painless, readable fashion. The description of the shutter release development is carefully written, though the author seems unaware that 'oblique' cameras providing side views were used at Palo Alto as well as at the later Pennsylvania setup.

The preface mentions a 'determined attempt to remove Muybridge from his place in history'. This refers to film historian Terry Ramsaye's account of Muybridge and his work, in A Million and One Nights; accurately described in Clegg's final chapter, 'Time Lord or Patent Fraud?', as 'a conscious, vituperative assault', and it's satisfying to see Ramsaye's account properly dismissed.

Muybridge wasn't quite, as the author contends, 'the first to bring motion to the big screen' - moving image projectors had previously been used publicly by Uchatius and by Döbler, and manufactured by Dubosq, and simple Wheel of Life versions could be purchased for use with any magic lantern; but Muybridge's screen images were different, featuring the essence of life distilled from his photographic motion sequences, and that's what made them special.

A few points should perhaps have been picked up by a sub-editor, and there are other mistakes, mostly copied through from previous accounts. Oddly, Clegg twice reproduces without comment an entry from the Sheriff's office record book that gives the date of Muybridge's arrest as September 19th, when the shooting took place on October 17th. Muybridge's use of the 'Eadweard' form of his first name is given as 'from around 1850'. In fact, Rebecca Solnit has shown that he didn't, apparently, use the archaic spelling until very much later - around 1880.

As I've stated elsewhere, Muybridge is a big and difficult subject, and only the brave attempt to cover the whole field. The main purpose of this website is to record the correct facts relating to Muybridge, so this review has concentrated on the slips and points of contention rather than paraphrasing the solid account of Muybridge and his work that Brian Clegg has produced. The biography is engaging and well written, and a very welcome addition to the Muybridge literature. As a book intended for a popular readership it lacks annotation, but many of the sources are mentioned in the text. I would certainly recommend The Man Who Stopped Time as a very useful introduction to Eadweard Muybridge, 'a Victorian marvel'.

HOME