Thoughts On: Human Figure In Motion (1884)
Studies of the human frame as it advances through various movements.
In the previous post, we concluded a brief look at Eadweard Muybridge’s life as one of the first ‘filmmakers’. There are, however, many questions and details we left out of his career – a few of which we’ll pick up on today by looking at some of his most famous works from The Human Figure In Motion.
As mentioned previously, Human Figure In Motion is a huge collection of Muybridge’s original works containing over 4700 pictures. These would all be displayed in the famous grid pattern that was first seen with Muybridge’s initial experiments…
… and were all shot during his time at the University of Pennsylvania as scientific works examining the, as the title suggest, human figure in motion. This is why you see the grid backgrounds in all of these pictures – they are ways of measuring the movement. However, this is an idea we will return to. One of the first things we must confront when looking at the works within this book is that they are not cinema as we know it. Cinema, as it has evolved, holds a singular perspective captured by one camera. Muybridge, as with his first experiment, is still using multiple cameras that take high speed photographs tripped via an electronic system. However, if we put aside that technical distinction, there is a very interesting link between Muybridge’s work in the mid 1880s and a film that came out over 100 years later…
The Matrix is of course famous for its use of bullet time – as depicted. But. how original was this ‘innovation’?
As you can see by looking closely at the second image, there is a dolly effect achieved thanks to the fact that Muybridge is using multiple cameras set up next to one another. This is clearly not very different from Neo’s bullet dodge – practically or aesthetically. You’ll see exactly why by looking behind the scenes of this very sequence:
Like The Wachowskis, Muybridge would have set up multiple cameras around his figures, capturing a form of bullet time without the massive production values and digital after effects.
However, there is a much deeper connection between The Matrix and Muybridge’s work that pertains to the conflict between science and entertainment. When watching The Matrix, it wouldn’t come to mind that the Wachowskis are studying movement and the human body. And the same can be said for some of Muybridge’s work. So, like The Matrix, many scenes within Human Figure In Motion can be deemed entertainment – artistic or otherwise.
Particular examples that have been critiqued as to pull into question Muybridge’s standing as a scientist are images like those depicting, for instance, women smoking. There is very little that can be gained from measuring the movement of someone as they smoke. After all, what data is being collected? The movement of an elbow? The motion of lips? The grip of fingers?
This is a pretty significant detail to realise when looking at Muybridge’s work. He never captures close ups of limbs and joints as you might if you were actually quantitatively studying motion and the human figure. Instead, Muybridge shot everything in a wide shot almost as an artistic study of human form. After all, there is a strong sense of eroticism in images such as women leisurely smoking, strutting wearing only thin a piece of fabric on her shoulders, or even kissing…
And of course, almost everyone had to be partially or entirely nude – for some reason. So, whilst I wouldn’t critique Muybridge for studying the human figure in such a way, it is quite clear that this isn’t very scientific and probably shouldn’t be framed as such – despite the grid backgrounds. That said, this work wasn’t entirely pornographic either as Muybridge would capture a vast array of figures, from little children, to teens, to grown women and men. He even shot himself quite frequently…
Nonetheless, and however perverted or unscientific you chose to label this work, the fact that Muybridge was doing something incredibly significant is undeniable. What is so special about Muybridge was the fact that he furthered humanity’s ability to control time. After all, he not only pioneered high speed photography, giving artists and scientists alike the ability to take pictures with short exposures, but he allowed people to photograph ‘verbs, not nouns’ – as to quote Rebecca Solnit in the BBC documentary ‘The Weird World of Eadweard Muybridge’.
There is a deep profundity found in the notion that humans can freeze and control time – and all for the sake of serving their own curiosity and/or pleasure impulses. In fact, this almost re-frames Muybridge’s work as some science-fictional endeavour to steal the powers of nature, to suspend its laws, as to voyeuristically perceive the world how he wishes. The mark that Muybridge’s work then seemingly leaves on the history of cinema is a philosophy of discovery and power. In such, from the instant that pictures really began to move, there began a tradition of self-reflection that, in certain sense, deviously defies nature. We see this too when we look at the first ‘film’ we covered in the Every Year series, The Passage Of Venus.
This film used cinema for science and, in turn, an exploration of curiosity. Muybridge adds further complexity to this idea of cinema’s purpose. He not only used it to become rich and famous, to arguably engage in scientific study, but also to indulge other inner motives. Whether you call these inner motives fantasies or ego-centrism, this is what cinema has remained to be. It serves those who assume the title ‘artist’, ‘director’, ‘writer’ or ‘actor’ as to tell stories about themselves for their own personal gain and the benefit of those interested in their self-reflection/self-projection.
Ultimately, all that can be re-iterated about Muybridge’s work is its title, Human Figure In Motion, knowing that this doesn’t just have to refer to the models captured, but also those who conduct and direct that motion. In such, Muybridge is arguably always the human figure that is the focus of his motion capture, leaving his works the earliest version of the auteur theory.
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