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Muybridge, The Attitudes of Animals in Motion, Getty conversations

Have you ever wondered what it took to take a photograph in the 1800s? Eadweard J. Muybridge’s The Attitudes of Animals in Motion is a great example of how photography changed our understanding of the world, with the ability to capture what the naked eye cannot see.

Getty has joined forces with Smarthistory to bring you an in-depth look at select works within our collection, whether you’re looking to learn more at home or want to make art more accessible in your classroom. This six-part video series illuminates art history concepts through fun, unscripted conversations between art historians, curators, archaeologists, and artists, committed to a fresh take on the history of visual arts.

A conversation with Dr. Mazie M. Harris, Assistant Curator, Department of Photographs, Getty Museum and Dr. Steven Zucker, Executive Director, Smarthistory, at Getty Center in front of The Attitudes of Animals in Motion, photographed, 1878–79; printed 1881, Eadweard J. Muybridge. Iron salt process, 19.5 x 24.7 x 3.1 cm. Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(upbeat music) - [Man] We're in the department of photography study center at the Getty Center, looking at this gorgeous book from the 19th century that collects the photographs of Eadweard Muybridge. We have the book open to one page with a number of small contact prints that could speak to Muybridge's remarkable, revolutionary project of stopping time. - [Woman] He's developing special shutter techniques so that he can capture these instantaneous moments. It's cumbersome in the 19th century to make photographs. You have glass plates, so you're dealing with these very fragile photographic emotions. You're having to develop them when they're wet. You're having to expose them very quickly. - [Man] This was photographed on what is now the campus of Stanford University. And in fact, the patron was Leland Stanford who was the governor of California and was a horse breeder. And who wanted to answer the question, which could had not be answered with the naked eye, what positions did the legs of a horse take when it was trotting, when it was galloping? And Muybridge sets out to solve this problem, and is unsuccessful at first, but is able to develop the technologies that are necessary in order to create these incredibly clear images. What we're seeing is something that people had never seen before. - [Woman] People did not know how horses run. If you look at the world around you, often with unaided vision, people imagine that things work a particular way. And what he was trying to do is to slow things down, to show the mechanics. So it's a very difficult project that he's taking on, and he's trying over and over. - [Man] Looking closely the series of images, I'm struck by the way in which the horse's legs are so straight, and move out beyond the horse's body. And then in the second row this is where we get what was truly revolutionary. We see the horse's feet coming together and leaving the ground all at once, but not spread forward and back as had been depicted so often in art prior to this moment, but gathered together under the body of the horse. And this is a remarkable achievement considering this is only a few decades after the invention of photography, to be able to have an emotion that was sensitive enough to have an aperture that would be open for only say a thousandth of a second, in order to be able to freeze these enormously thin slivers of time. - [Woman] This is a time when there was no automatic shutter to register a photograph. You took a lens cap off of the front of the camera, and the photographer had to know how long to leave that lens cap off, and then would place it back on. That's obviously not possible in a situation like this where it's moving so rapidly. So he's developing chemicals to make the motions very sensitive. He's developing mechanisms to trigger the shutters. And he's beginning to patent a lot of these techniques so that they would become a commercially viable system for capturing motion. - [Man] It's so interesting to think about the second half of the 19th century. Because of these advances in technology, we are able to see things for the first time that we had not been able to see previously with the naked eye. But at the same time, there are other advances that are surrounding this, the telegraph, the phonograph, the ability to take a human voice and to freeze that in time so that it can be played over and over again. This is a world of reproducibility that is moving at an enormous pace. - [Woman] When you open the album, it starts with some text where he's explaining what he's doing. And he says, "Photographed from life in 1878 and 1879." The opening page of the album showing the overall campus and the location where this took place. Then as you move through the album you start to see the equipment that he's using, and you see the shutter system that he developed that can take these split second images that are needed. You see the trip wires, the bank of cameras. It shows him being very thoughtful about how he's presenting the project, it's as much about how he will be promoting it and explaining it to the world, as about the scientific inquiry itself. He was a businessman as much as a artist, and this book is a great marker of that. - [Man] So his accomplishment is not simply one that is technical. The very reason that he received the commission that he did to try to document a horse's gate was the result of his earlier professional work. When he made a name for himself, especially in California, for his extraordinary panoramic images of the natural world most famously of Yosemite Valley. For me, these types of photographs from the 19th century are such important reminders of the technologies that we now take for granted. (upbeat music)