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On View: 'Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change'

The exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art looks at a broad body of the pioneering photographer's work.

April 17, 2011|By Michael J. Ybarra, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Eadweard Muybridge, Contemplation Rock, Glacier Point (1385), 1872; albumen stereograph.
Eadweard Muybridge, Contemplation Rock, Glacier Point (1385), 1872;… (Eadweard Muybridge / SFMOMA )

The pair of sepia photographs show a man sitting precariously on the edge of a rock, itself balanced none-too-reassuringly atop a cliff overlooking one of the great views in the world: Yosemite Valley. It's an image that speaks both to the grandeur of the West and the 19th century's desire to unlock the secrets of nature.

The prints — meant to give a three-dimensional image when viewed through a stereograph device — were taken in 1872 by Eadweard Muybridge, a pioneering photographer whose work helped pave the way for motion pictures.

While Muybridge is best remembered for his stop-action photos of galloping horses, a new exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art seeks to explore a broader body of work that has largely been eclipsed by a few famous images.

Called "Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change," the show — running through June 7 — features more than 300 objects and covers two decades of photography, including landscape photography in Yosemite, urban streetscapes and war reportage from the Modoc Indian War in California, and Muybridge's famous stop-action photographs of animals and people in motion.

The exhibition, which originated at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, is the first retrospective examination of Muybridge's entire career.

Born in England, Muybridge (1830-1904) learned photography when he was 37 and set up shop in San Francisco. His early landscape work was published under the name Helios. In the 1870s, Muybridge began his groundbreaking motion studies at the behest of former Gov. Leland Stanford, who wanted to know if all four of a horse's hooves left the ground at the same time during a gallop. Using a series of cameras, Muybridge proved that they did. He also invented a machine that he called a Zoöpractiscope, which allowed a series of pictures to be viewed in rapid succession — a proto motion picture.

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