It may be accident or design, but this documentary about one of the most influential photographers of the 19th century is being released just in time to resonate with a key detail in Jordan Peele’s new feature Nope. In the latter film, the Black siblings at the heart of the story claim their jockey ancestor was the man riding the horse in Eadweard Muybridge’s famous series of pictures of a racehorse galloping, a work commissioned by railroad baron Leland Stanford who wanted to know conclusively if at any point in a stride all four hooves leave the ground. Turns out it’s when the four legs are curled up towards each other, not when they’re fully extended, undermining the veracity of countless equine depictions from the centuries before 1878. That was the date that Muybridge finally succeeded in setting up a battery of 12 cameras with newfangled shutters at a Palo Alto racetrack (now part of Stanford University) that took the sequence of still photos that not only settled the matter of horses in motion but eventually led to the creation of cinematography via persistence-of-vision gadgets such as the zoopraxiscope.
That one key achievement alone would be worthy of a documentary. But director Marc Shaffer unfolds an even richer story with this cinematic biography, which tracks the complex, ornery, strange central figure from his humble beginnings in England, where he was born in 1830 as Edward James Muggeridge, through his years as a bookseller, then a photographer of the west and propagandist for the US government’s war against the Native American Modoc tribe, and at one point a jealous husband who went on trial for shooting his wife’s lover. The whole late phase of his life when he took motion studies pictures of naked humans, animals and wrestlers, supposedly for science, is no less notorious, fascinating and influential given those studies directly influenced artists such as David Hockney and Francis Bacon.
In addition to lashings of rostrum shots of Muybridge’s work, Shaffer has brought in an assortment of art historians and other experts to discuss the man and his work, the most surprising among them being Gary Oldman. The actor, an English emigrant to California like Muybridge himself, makes some acute observations about Muybridge’s style, technique and mien and adds a bit of Hollywood pizzazz to a story that’s crying out for a biopic.
• Exposing Muybridge is released on 12 August at Bertha Doc House, London.