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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Eadweard Muybridge Exhibit at SFMOMA: A Concise, Fascinating View of Innovative Artist

Posted on Thu, Feb 24, 2011 at 9:30 AM

Leland Stanford Jr. on his pony "Gypsy" -- Phases of a Stride by a Pony While Cantering (1879) - EADWEARD MUYBRIDGE
  • Eadweard Muybridge
  • Leland Stanford Jr. on his pony "Gypsy" -- Phases of a Stride by a Pony While Cantering (1879)

When you hear the name Eadweard Muybridge, the first thing that probably comes to mind is horses. Because Muybridge is known for that -- getting the stop-motion photographs of horses that for the first time let us see and track their locomotive patterns. And no small task it was, because it also was the first step toward motion pictures. But what you might not know about Muybridge is he was an innovator during his entire career. He was interested in science and business as well as aesthetics, pushing the limits of photography to lay the groundwork for much of what we take for granted today.

Muybridge learned from the great landscape painters that came before him and later inspired not only West Coast photographers such as Ansel Adams but also European artists including Edward Degas. The exhibit that opens Saturday at the SFMOMA, "Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change," traces the various stages of his complex and multifaceted career in a concise way that continually holds the viewer's interest.

First-Order Lighthouse at Punta de los Reyes, Seacoast of California, 296 Feet Above Sea (4136) (1871) - EADWEARD MUYBRIDGE
  • Eadweard Muybridge
  • First-Order Lighthouse at Punta de los Reyes, Seacoast of California, 296 Feet Above Sea (4136) (1871)

The exhibit, which runs through June 7, contains some 300 pieces from Muybridge dated 1858 to 1893. Much of that time he spent in San Francisco or elsewhere in Northern California. The show was curated by Philip Brookman, chief curator and head of research for the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Brookman said works in the exhibit were borrowed from some 38 collections. The show has made two stops in the United States; San Francisco is its last.

City Hall Under Construction, shot in San Francisco - EADWEARD MUYBRIDGE
  • Eadweard Muybridge
  • City Hall Under Construction, shot in San Francisco
Brookman has divided a third-floor area of SFMOMA into multiple spaces, each explaining and depicting various stages of Muybridge's creative and technical development. Photographs line the walls while a number of artifacts -- including letters, periodicals, and one of Muybridge's inventions (the praxinoscope) -- occupy cases at the centers of the rooms. Outlined at the beginning of each section are the geographical regions, time span, and subject matter of the work contained within.

Boxing; open-hand. Plate 340 (1887) - EADWEARD MUYBRIDGE
  • Eadweard Muybridge
  • Boxing; open-hand. Plate 340 (1887)

The stages of Muybridge's work are manifold, but at the end of the exibit the viewer is left with three distinct impressions: natural landscape, urban setting, and stop-motion photography. These, generally, define the three stages of his career.

The praxinoscope, when loaded with a disc containing Muybridge's photos, would project the equivalent of moving pictures.
  • The praxinoscope, when loaded with a disc containing Muybridge's photos, would project the equivalent of moving pictures.
Brookman has wisely divided the material this way. Anyone who's been to a large-scale photography exhibit knows that no matter how good the work is, there's a possibility (some would say probability) of the viewer "going blind" and losing interest long before seeing everything. Brookman avoids this by organizing the exhibit as he has, creating sections that are different enough to prevent this "photo blindness" and interesting enough to make the viewer want to know what's next -- and then double back later to see how the pieces interrelate.



For more events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section.


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