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MOTION PICTURES : In Eadweard Muybridge's Photos, Actions Are Broken Down Into Dozens of Separate Gestures

August 13, 1992|CATHY CURTIS | Cathy Curtis covers art for The Times Orange County Edition.

Nineteenth-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge, an English merchant's son who immigrated to the United States at age 21, is famous for three things: his own bizarre spelling of his name, his sensational acquittal for the murder of his wife's lover, and his blurry but indisputable photographic proof that Occident, former California Gov. Leland Stanford's racehorse, galloped by lifting all four feet off the ground.

In 1877, Muybridge began pursuing a serious study of animal motion with the help of a special contraption. When Occident streaked across a specially prepared track, the horse successively tripped wires attached to 24 still cameras, 21 inches apart. For the first time, years before movies were invented, motion had been systematically "stopped" for the world to see.

Muybridge went on to study the movements of other animals, and of men and women. Published in "The Attitudes of Animals in Motion" (1881) and "Animal Locomotion" (1887), his sequences of views broke down the separate gestures of bodies doing such familiar things as walking, running and climbing, as well as sports activities (gymnastics, boxing, pole-vaulting, baseball) and manual labor (wielding a pickax).

Even in our sophisticated world of laser discs and satellite transmission, these images retain their curiously mesmerizing quality.

The repetition of almost-identical white imagery on flat black backgrounds has a rhythmic, almost trance-like effect. The images themselves allow viewers to marvel once again at the remarkable piece of engineering that is the human body. They also show how paying close attention to tiny increments of time can make even the most ordinary gesture seem fascinating. "Motion and Document--Sequence and Time: Eadweard Muybridge and Contemporary American Photography"--yes, the title is a drag, but the show is enthralling--finally has made its way across the country to the Long Beach Museum of Art, where it remains through Sept. 13.

Organized by the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., the exhibit combines Muybridge's grids of stop-motion imagery with multi-image photographs by modern and contemporary artists who found the grid format a useful way of demonstrating the relationship of parts to a whole.

Last summer, when the exhibit was at the National Museum of American Art in Washington, it became the target of censorship when museum director Elizabeth Broun removed a contemporary work by Sol LeWitt, a "peephole" sequence of increasingly intimate shots of a female nude walking toward the viewer. Broun maintained that it was offensive to women. (She eventually put the work back into the show, and it is on view in Long Beach).

There is a lot of nudity in this show, as it happens, but most of it is the work of Muybridge himself. Many of his models, both male and female, go about their business in the altogether. Stripped down to skin, they have a non-specific, archetypal quality akin to artists' models posing in the studio.

Still, it does seem that Muybridge posed the nude women in some particularly awkward or playfully anecdotal activities: climbing in and out of a hammock; drop-kicking a hat; putting on a dress (with none of the usual undergarments); walking on a row of rocks carrying a fishing reel and basket; giving another woman a bath with a bucket of water. Seen a century later, these images have as much to do with cultural beliefs about sexual roles as they do with scientific analysis of movement.

Muybridge had to depend on his own rather cumbersome invention, the zoopraxiscope, to give his images the effect of movement. But we have a graceful tool, devised by documentary filmmaker James Sheldon (co-curator of the exhibit, with Jock Sturges). Sheldon's videodisc effortlessly animates Muybridge's photographs, making them seem like snippets from a medley of old silent movies. An interactive component of the exhibit allows viewers to isolate and combine elements from the enormous stockpile of images.

Sprinkled throughout the exhibit are examples of work by more than 40 famous and little-known photographers who have adapted Muybridge's sequential approach. Some focus on a single object, place or person over a period of years; others document briefer intervals (the speediest is a bullet's trajectory through a balloon, in a photo sequence shot by Harold Edgerton in 1959). Still other photographers have made critiques or spoofs of Muybridge's work.

William Christenberry returned to a stretch of country road in Greensboro, Ala., every year between 1967 and 1990 to document the evolution of a decrepit little store into a modest establishment called the Underground Night Club. Each new identity that the shack assumes--with the help of additions, fresh paint and various hand-painted and printed signs--mirrors a broader cultural shift from rural Southern life to more standardized suburbia.

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