The Introduction to my monograph on Muybridge’s Scrapbook, ‘Muybridge: The Eye in Motion’, published in the UK by Solar Books, and distributed in the USA by University of Chicago Press, in 2012.
INTRODUCTION: MUYBRIDGE’S EYE IN MOTION
Eadweard Muybridge’s seminal body of work forms a vital presence – in many ways, the determining force – in envisaging the future, and remembering the past, of experiments in visual culture and media forms: above all, the medium of film. Composed of innumerable fragments of images and texts, it is a body of work with total immediacy, excessively charged into the contemporary moment, and transmitting itself from that moment throughout all temporal, as well as spatial, dimensions. The documents of Muybridge’s work and of his working process, particularly those documents that he assembled himself and saw as carrying his work’s traces into the future, form invaluable means to understand and explore its intricate, multiple itinerary. Pre-eminent among those documents is Muybridge’s Scrapbook, in which he amassed every trace he viewed as essential about his work, across a span of over thirty years, so that it accumulated into an extraordinary memory-book that interrogated and overspilled time and its own parameters. In Muybridge’s work, the eye – that of Muybridge himself, of the visualised eye, and of his work’s spectator – is perpetually in movement across those newly torn-open zones in corporeal time and space.
This first part of the book explores Muybridge’s work through a wide range of events, texts and images, but pre-eminently through that unique oracular object of his Scrapbook: an aberrant vision-machine as well as a time-machine, and an irreducible archive in its own right, that holds revelations not only about Muybridge’s work, but also into the origins of film, the future of digital culture, and the perception of urban and corporeal forms. The second part of the book examines the close and revealing connections between Muybridge’s work and that of two key but neglected instigators of cinema, Max and Emil Skladanowsky, who undertook the first-ever public screening in Europe of celluloid-based films for a paying audience (using a projector, the ‘Bioskop’, they had built themselves, and showing films they had shot themselves, with a film-camera they had constructed themselves), on 1 November 1895, at a hotel in Berlin, two years after Muybridge’s formative glass-disc projection events in his Zoopraxographical Hall at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition, and at around the same time that Muybridge, abandoning his photographic experiments and projections, began work on his final work: the Scrapbook. The third part of the book interrogates that pivotal memory-document of Muybridge’s work – in many ways, a crucial document for the understanding of how contemporary visual cultures originated – by disassembling it into the fragments from which it was created, in order to probe the all-encompassing ocular and corporeal processes at stake in Muybridge’s work.
In many ways, Muybridge’s eye in motion – in envisioning the origins of cinema – visualises forms for film and for cinematic space which are at profound variance with the way in which film and its spaces subsequently developed, especially after the rise and dominance of narrative, sound film and its industrial forms, in the late 1920s. Muybridge’s work forms the fragmentation of human vision. His conceptions of corporeal image-sequences and the spaces in which to project them follow a more peripheral, subterranean course for most of film’s history, as though they existed in a parallel world from dominant genres and industries of film. Those conceptions have immediate connections to the 1920s and early 30s Surrealist filmmaking of Luis Buñuel, Man Ray and Antonin Artaud, with its emphasis on ocular experimentation and on cinemas as experimental arenas of perception; to the Europe-wide city-filmmaking initiatives, also of the late 1920s and early 30s, such as Dziga Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera, in which human and urban movement is multiply captured and disassembled for the spectating eye; to American experimental and underground film of the 1960s and 70s, such as that of Kenneth Anger and Hollis Frampton (who wrote one of the most perceptive essays on Muybridge’s work), and to Japanese avant-garde filmmaking of the same era, notably that of Toshio Matsumoto and Takahiko Iimura, that undertook exhaustive experimentation into the work of the eye, into the time of the image, and into the spatial and perceptual boundaries of cinematic spaces; and also, finally, to contemporary work in digital film-animation and motion-capture, especially within feature films of dystopic urban environments in which all coherent reality has disintegrated, and only fragments of movements, aligned with hallucination and excess, survive and captivate the eye. Muybridge’s work, in its movement into the future, pre-emptively elides almost the entire history of cinema – as though in contempt at its banalities – before vitally connecting with contemporary digital image-making and its environments.
Muybridge’s pervasive inspiration extends far beyond the domain of film and photography, encompassing visual art, poetry, performance, fiction, digital media, choreography, and theory. It so pervades and activates Francis Bacon’s work that at times it appears that Bacon’s overriding desire is to comprehensively transmutate Muybridge’s sequences from the medium of photography into that of painting, and also to wrench the male human body, and its sensorial and sexual resonances, across that abyss between media, too. Such inspirations are rarely a response to an exposure to Muybridge’s work in its totality, since that work is profligately vast and expansive, wilfully so, and many of its traces are scattered across archival collections. More often, as with Bacon’s approach (with Muybridge’s images torn from the catalogues or albums of his work, and affixed to the studio walls or trodden underfoot), it is an exposure to isolated images or sequences drawn out of more extensive works. Contemporary culture has, engrained deep within in, an infinity of responses to Muybridge’s images of bodies in motion, from more than a century’s exposure to that work: responses endlessly amended and transformed, and inflected by that contact with flashes or shards of images. In the future, whenever all of the traces of Muybridge’s work – such as his Scrapbook – are digitised and immediately accessible, that body of work will necessarily generate other, unforeseen dimensions of response, in visual culture and beyond. But Muybridge’s work also presents a profound challenge to digitisation, and to the pervasive spectatorial ‘ease’ of viewing, since it always resistantly exceeds the medium that surrounds it, and demands that the medium itself must be overhauled, destabilised, reworked, or returned to zero, in order to hold and project that work. In its compulsive preoccupation with variants and repetitions, Muybridge’s work also prefigures digital culture’s proliferations and amassings, together with its bindings of the image to the eye, but simultaneously subjects them to the same interrogations and erasures which his experiments of the 1870s and 80s exacted upon photography and corporeal perception.
The permanent creative incitation embodied in Muybridge’s work is that it never accepts or replicates what has gone before. In all of the dimensions of his work – the devising of image-sequences and spaces that are prescient of film and its cinematic projection, the rendering of urban landscape, and the exploration of corporeal speed and gesture – he obstinately began from scratch, utilising as ready-made media only the basic technical infrastructures of photography and image-projection, to comprehensively overhaul them, often disregarding their originally intended purpose, in order to formulate (often by improvisation, using materials such as cigar-box lids and sewing-machine handles) the required media with which to carry forward his preoccupations. In many ways, Muybridge’s work forms a set of inventive fractures, rather than an accumulation of linear consolidations, and those formative moments of fracture, in which existing media are abruptly engulfed or reconceived, leave their traces in the archival memory of his work, above all in his Scrapbook: memories of immediacies and instants often of creative exhilaration, that interrogate the future far more than the past. Muybridge’s work has always been seen as mixing innovation with the obstinate pursuit of dead-ends, such as the animated sequences he traced in paint over images drawn from photographic reality, on his glass discs for public projection; in Muybridge’s work, whatever appears a misfired dead-end also has the capacity to mutate – as it expands in time and intersects with the future, such as that of contemporary digital animation – into finetuned prescience.
Muybridge’s envisaging of the future forms of the visual image and of human perception were met in his era with an oscillation between bewilderment and acclaim. Documents such as his Scrapbook seize the delicate hairsbreadth boundary between the dual perception, across those decades, of his work as unacceptably perverse and wrong, and as unique and unprecedented both as spectacle and human erudition. Beyond its public reception, but crucial to its development, Muybridge’s work is also marked by two traumatic events, one of which he was subjected to, the other initiated and inflicted by himself; in both instances, the body stops dead. The first was a stagecoach crash of 1860 in Texas, during a coast-to-coast journey across the USA, in which he suffered severe brain injuries after the horses ran wild and he was propelled at speed from the carriage, his forehead striking a rock. The second was his merciless and pre-meditated shooting-dead, fourteen years later, of his wife’s lover, Harry Larkyns, at a mine building in Calistoga, after pursuing him by ferryboat and train from San Francisco; at his trial, Muybridge was exonerated and released without punishment. The first event comprised a private, occluded one, rarely evoked by Muybridge himself, but which left deep neural and sensory damage; the second, a spectacular media furore focused principally upon the figure of the self-confessed and defiant murderer Muybridge himself, rather than on his work. The two events only coincided at Muybridge’s murder trial, at which, facing either hanging or acquittal, he evoked the stagecoach crash in his evidence. Although those two extreme moments, of cerebral trauma and murderous frenzy, appear entirely mismatched with the correspondingly extreme moments of unrestrained glory and adulation he subsequently experienced – through his work’s worldwide acclaim by royalty, artists and eminent scientists – they are embedded into each other. In order for his work to survive and undergo public scrutiny, Muybridge rigorously consigned those ‘negative’ events into oblivion and absence (they appear nowhere in his Scrapbook), as though they belonged to another lifetime or to someone’s else’s life, but those catastrophic moments form intimately conjoined presences with his moments of innovation, operating like the dual lenses of early film-projectors (such as the Skladanowsky Brothers’ Bioskop projector), one lens obscured by a rotating device while the other lens projected, but both ultimately impacting upon the eye.
Muybridge designed his own projector, the Zoopraxiscope, in 1879, and began public spectacles in San Francisco of his image-sequences, projected from glass discs, before rapidly expanding those events across the USA and Europe. In Muybridge’s work, everything that emerges, at every moment (beyond those two determinedly screened-away moments of cerebral-trauma and murder), must result in projection, performance and spectacle, and be directed, in repetition, towards the spectating eye and that eye’s overhauling through a new vision; the surviving traces and documents of his work invariably engage and challenge the eye, and propel it into motion. Even his Scrapbook, compiled in relative solitude and obscurity during Muybridge’s final years, forms an intricately edited and visually-oriented body of ocular documentation, intended for the perception of his work in the contemporary moment, and closely allied to his Zoopraxiscope, in projecting that work more dynamically, through its multiple fragments of images, texts, and corporeal figures, than any linear, narrational chronology.
This first part of the book begins with an exploration of how Muybridge’s work forms an aperture into the ways in which memory operates, and how a multiplicitous body of work such as that of Muybridge is visualised and incorporated primarily though its memory-traces and residues. In a contemporary era of rapid transmutation, in which effacement and oblivion are pre-eminent elements of visual culture, documents of memory become ever more precious – but also fragile and endangered – artefacts, subject to loss. Muybridge’s work operates with a dynamic framework of immediacy, both in its seizing of instantaneous movement through image-sequences and in its compulsion perpetually to innovate or else face obliteration, and that desire for immediacy is imparted to the ways in which his memory-traces are perceived. In that context, residual scraps and fragments become more vital than ‘completed’ works, in seizing the memory of Muybridge’s work.
This first part of the book then goes on to analyse a sequence of especially significant moments in Muybridge’s work, as puncture-points into the multiple layers and depths of its itinerary, such as his photographing of San Francisco panoramas, his proliferating experiments into human movement in Philadelphia, his formulation of image-projection events within a specially designed space in Chicago, and his terminal project to amass the memory of his own work on his eventual return to Kingston. Alongside the desire for propulsive innovation, Muybridge is also fully cognisant of the allied power of sheer repetition, and his Scrapbook incorporates both of those strands of his work in mapping the zigzagging, aberrant course of his experiments alongside the repetition with which he relentlessly promoted, represented and projected those experiments. Crucial to such representations, alongside the power of repetition, is also the power of deletion: Muybridge is a prescient manipulator of enforced oblivions, deployed above all to ensure that negative reports of his work could, to the maximum extent, be erased from sight or else engulfed by positive reports, at least in the traces of it which he himself controlled. In that sense, documents of Muybridge’s work, such his Scrapbook – which he conceived of specifically as a ‘book’ of that work – never narrate it; they fragment, reinvent and propel it, beyond narrative.
The first part of the book also examines the archival, preservational implications of Muybridge’s work and its own movement into the future, as a body of work whose contrary amalgam is fused by preoccupations with loss, speed, perception, projection, corporeality, vision and the ‘tactile’ eye. In many ways, those preoccupations are exactly those of contemporary digital culture, and connect with archival issues around the uniqueness and potential reproducibility of objects, through such processes as digitisation. While forming a seminal presence for contemporary culture, Muybridge’s work, in its non-replicating resistance to assimilation, also necessitates an archive of its own. In a parallel way, his Scrapbook, itself a self-archiving by Muybridge of his work’s fragmentary traces in texts and images, also demands the formulation of an archive consisting of one unique artefact, in the way that Jacques Derrida, in his final interviews, envisaged objects of such all-consuming resonance that they required a tangible separation and a distinct space of their own, in order more intensively to then impact upon and reveal the surrounding worlds, and their visual cultures; in that sense, no object deserves its ‘sacrosanct’ one-artefact archive more than Muybridge’s Scrapbook. And among those visual cultures, that of film is pre-eminent in its sensitised response to Muybridge’s work. Since that work forms a volatile originating presence in film and cinematic space, it must necessarily then also be an equally essential presence within film’s contemporary vanishing.