The Idea of Motion

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A new novel by Robert Seidman has me thinking about Edward Muybridge, the pioneering 19th century photographer obsessed with capturing movement on film –long before cinema was created. The book, “Moments Captured,” spins out a fictionalized story based on Muybridge’s life, great love, travels, inventions and adventures. 



I’ve been thinking about Muybridge even without the book –via the documentary Culture Shock 1913, our program about Modernism, recently finished (now available here).


Sequence of a Horse Galloping by Edward Muybridge / Library of Congress


Muybridge, the creator of “motion study” photographs, was in the first draft of the program, and the second, and the third, along with his French counterpart, Etienne-Jules Marey.  Both had a profound influence on the Modernists, in particular the original “idea man,” Marcel Duchamp.


Duchamp’s painting, “Nude Descending a Staircase,” created a major sensation a hundred years ago (next month is the centenary) at the Armory Show here in New York.  The picture is well known…

"Nude Descending a Staircase," Marcel Duchamp. spDuchamp/Flickr

…but it’s a great example of the way Duchamp, in a fashion now very recognizable to this generation, drew on every part of the culture for his ideas.  The original nude on a staircase was not the one by Duchamp -but the one photographed by the movement-obsessed Muybridge (the photographer would line up a dozen cameras and fire them in sequence as the subject moved across or up or down, to see each stage of movement of the horse or bird –or nude—in question). 

Edward Muybridge, Woman walking downstairs. {{PD-1923}}

Duchamp freely admitted it was seeing “motion-capture” photography by Muybridge and Marey that gave him the idea to condense all the stages of movement in his painting of that nude.  The painter’s other contribution, in this case, was giving a very specific title to a somewhat indecipherable image –thus forever changing the nature of the “contract” between artist and viewer.  “Where’s the nude?” asked perplexed Armory-Show patrons. 


Sadly, by around the 8th or 9th version of the hour program Culture Shock 1913, still many minutes too long, it had become clear that Muybridge and Marey, influential though they may have been, were not going to make the final cut.   


But they played a vital role in the backstory of the development of cinema and in the turn of mind that brought Modernism into the open.


So: Read “Moments Captured.”  See Duchamp’s works in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which has the largest collection of his work, including “Nude Descending.”  Listen to Culture Shock 1913, and learn some of the context for Modernism and audience upset.  It’s a long, lovely story and there’s a lot we had to leave out.