Thoughts On: Buffalo Running (1883)
Our focus on Eadweard Muybridge continues with a look at a later example of his work depicting an American Bison in motion.
This post is, in short, a continuation of Every Year In Film #4 where we looked at Eadweard Muybridge for the first time through his ‘film’, Sallie Gardner At A Gallop. This was of course followed by a look into the history of projectors, so that we can now finally touch on the first movie projector, Muybridge’s zoopraxiscope, and delve into how this device fits into the history of his career.
The zoopraxiscope was invented by Muybridge as a reaction to the critique of non-believers and sceptics who would satirise his work:
The zoopraxiscope was then used in his lectures around the world to give his images the illusion of motion. This would not only add weight and verisimilitude to Muybridge’s photography, but would popularise it, making his findings widely accepted. The device would function by focusing light through glass discs with his photographs painted on:
As you’ll notice, not only are these ‘photographs’ painted silhouettes, but they are also distorted. The reason why this is the case was because, when the actual photographs where projected, they were stretched, tall and thin. To combat this, Muybridge would have his photographs painted onto glass (sometimes this would be done in colour) so that they were shorter and wider. When these images were projected, they would then appear to capture the natural dimensions of, say for instance, a horse.
The discs would then be loaded into the zoopraxiscope with a shutter before them – we explored why shutter have to be used in Every Year In Film #2 – and then projected to be 5 or 7 feet tall onto walls and screens.
On a side note, the word ‘zoopraxiscope’ is seemingly a strange name for this device. The reason for this name comes down to its Greek derivation. Zoo- is a combining form meaning living being. Praxis means action. And scope means to view. So, zoopraxiscope essentially means ‘view the action of living beings’. This term was used by Muybridge as opposed to his original title, zoogyroscope. With ‘gyro’ referring to meat in Greek, we can easily see how ‘zoopraxiscope’ is a better term.
But, returning to the note of the photographs being painted onto glass, Muybridge’s projections weren’t really films. At best, you could then consider them animated cartoons or loose representations/interpretations of reality. Remembering this, when we see his films projected like this…
… we aren’t seeing Muybridge’s work how it’d originally be shown – a better example of this is the first animated gif of a horse running. Films like the second example would have been generated using Muybridge’s photographs at a later date. An example of this would be our film today:
This pretty astounding, yet simple, motion picture was made in 1883 during a prolific period of Eadweard Muybridge’s as he worked at the University of Pennsylvania. It was shot in the Philadelphia zoo and, as the title suggests, it depicts a buffalo running. During his time studying in the university, Muybridge produce over 20,000 individual images of hundreds of different subjects ranging from people in a studio…
… to animals in the zoo…
And he published all of these in 1887 in a portfolio called, Animal Locomotion: an Electro-Photographic Investigation of Connective Phases of Animal Movements. These works went on to influence many painters and filmmakers over the years – but, this is a subject we’ll return to at a later time. What we’ve left out is how Muybridge ended up at the University, obsessively producing these works.
It all comes back to Stanford, the man who funded his first experiment. In 1882, Dr. J. B. D. Stillman writes a book for Stanford that analyses Muybridge’s The Horse In Motion without crediting him. As a result of this, Muybridge was deemed a plagiarist and his funding and papers were revoked by the Royal Society Of Arts. Back in court, though this time not for murder, Muybridge filed a lawsuit against Stanford – but this was dismissed.
This saw Muybridge seek new sponsorship which eventually landed him in the University of Pennsylvania and allows us to jump back up to 1887 where Muybridge has published his work. It is from this point on that he travels again, lecturing on his works with the aid of his zoopraxiscopes. A significant series of lectures that Muybridge conducted was during the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. The Exposition was a celebration of the 400 year anniversary of Columbus’ arrival to the ‘new world’ in 1492. In such, it was a 6-month-long fair that over 27 million people attended where a Zoopraxographical Hall was constructed for Muybridge’s lectures.
And this hall can in fact be considered the first movie theatre ever made.
Following this, Muybridge continued lecturing and released two famous books, Animals In Motion and The Human Figure In Motion after claiming control over his negatives. He later died in 1904 due to prostate cancer.
With his legacy solidified in film history, Muybridge is widely remembered to this day through books, films, music videos, plays, memorials and statues. And this has ultimately deemed him the title, the Father of the Motion Pictures.
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