A array of cameras set up by the filmmakers to recreate Muybridge's most famous photographs. (Courtesy California Film Institute)
With his long beard, dark waistcoat and piercing stare, Eadweard Muybridge personifies, in photographs, a certain type of 19th-century Englishman. But Muybridge wasn’t cut from any mold. Indeed, his arrival in San Francisco in 1855 as a bookseller, and his return a dozen years later as a photographer, puts him in the forefront of two modern phenomena: iconoclasts who came West to reinvent themselves, and technological innovation.
“Most historical figures get treated as antiques on a shelf, as time capsules to an earlier age,” muses Oakland filmmaker Marc Shaffer. “No matter how significant they may be, they’re nonetheless thought of as of the past, and so there’s a kind of distance there.”
Muybridge, though, is an exception. You may be familiar with his signature motion-photography project, undertaken in the 1870s at the behest of and funded by the powerful railroad man and prideful Palo Alto horse trainer Leland Stanford to ascertain whether a galloping steed left the ground completely. The series of rapid-fire pictures is now viewed as a precursor to motion pictures.
Shaffer was unaware of Muybridge, in part because his career as an award-winning broadcast journalist and filmmaker for Frontline, Al-Jazeera and National Geographic (among others) was centered on the East Coast. When he encountered Muybridge’s striking photographs while researching American Jerusalem: Jews and the Making of San Francisco (2014), the Berkeley native was stunned.
“Muybridge, as I got to know his story and I got to understand the impact of his work, I realized he was a kind of starting point—an origin story—for us, who live in a sea of visual storytelling,” Shaffer explains. “Our modern culture is defined by technological visual storytelling in some really important ways that go back to Muybridge.”
Exposing Muybridge, Shaffer’s deliciously probing and philosophical recounting of Muybridge’s strange and colorful life, screens Saturday, May 7 at 8pm in DocLands, the California Film Institute’s annual documentary festival at the Smith Rafael Film Center.
Winner of the 2022 Writers Guild Award for documentary screenplay, the film is also distinguished by the creative editing of Elisabeth Haviland James (a product of Stanford University’s graduate documentary program, coincidentally), Chad Cannon’s thoughtful score and Muybridge collector and aficionado Gary Oldman’s numerous amusing and pointed comments (alongside those of certified historians and scholars).
For his part, Shaffer was less interested in cementing Muybridge’s role in the evolution of cinema than in wrestling with the moral and aesthetic choices he made.
“I’m very animated by questions around truth, what is true and the power of a storyteller to filter reality and essentially define it for audiences,” Shaffer says. “That was my experience as a news producer, and since that’s something I’ve struggled with my whole career, when I encountered it in Muybridge’s work it deeply resonated.”
While Muybridge’s work has been covered by scholars and popular writers, Shaffer says, the trustworthiness of his images hasn’t been a dominant theme in most of that work. “It’s really quite secondary,” he says. “As a person who’s been entrusted to make sense out of the world, that Muybridge was not so reliable in that regard kind of jumped off the page to me.”
Muybridge took liberties like adding clouds to a landscape during processing (fixing it in post, we call it today). Like other photographers, he was compensating for the rudimentary quality of the medium and the camera, which couldn’t expose the ground and the sky at the same time.
“He considered himself an artist, he described his photographs as ‘illustrated by Muybridge,’ Shaffer explains. “I think that he believed that he didn’t just have the license, he had the obligation to make the most aesthetically pleasing images he could, which would often mean producing a fiction: things that didn’t exist in nature. Part of that was just the beauty of what he could do with his camera, kind of an early Photoshop [way of] manipulating things in the frame that weren’t there.”
Exposing Muybridge lingers on a more problematic photo, in a Harper’s Weekly spread, that purported to be a Modoc warrior. In fact, Muybridge “cast” a Native American scout with the U.S. Army—a member of the Warm Springs tribe—holding a government carbine.
“I had an evolution [over] 10 years,” Shaffer confides. “Maybe I started from a place that was more judgmental: Muybridge had done something wrong. He manipulated his images without being transparent, or mischaracterized some of them because it was convenient for him. He needed to be held accountable, almost in an investigative reporting sense. We found out he did something and he didn’t tell us about it and that’s betrayal.”
Shaffer, who speaks in paragraphs rather than soundbites, continues, “I came to have a greater appreciation for different kinds of truths. As [photographer] Byron Wolfe says in the film, his photography is more like poetry. If you understand him in those terms, you can appreciate that it’s what all art is, it has the capacity to have a deeper truth, a resonant emotional truth, that transcends the physical reality of what it represents.”
As someone who’s made media for mainstream audiences for decades, Shaffer is sensitive not only to the responsibilities of the individual behind the camera but to the expectations of the viewer. And he wishes audiences were more skeptical and less passive.
“Photographs have always had an authority to them,” he notes. “We’ve had this comfort with the machine-made image. Part of it feels like it’s unfiltered. A painter paints but a camera makes the real thing. And maybe there’s a greater sense of betrayal when you discover that the person controlling the camera made something that isn’t true—‘true’ is a tricky word—it isn’t what was in front of his camera.”
Muybridge was a complicated figure; he changed his name from the prosaic Edward James Muggeridge in stages after his departure from England. He subsequently suffered a head injury between his two Bay Area residencies that likely altered his personality. (One of the more colorful passages in the film concerns the action he took against the man he believed to be his wife’s lover, resulting in Muybridge’s trial for murder.) If Shaffer and his assembled experts are uncomfortable when he manipulates photographs—notably in his massive animal locomotion series at the University of Pennsylvania—they confess admiration for Muybridge’s drive, initiative, stubbornness and independence.
“Muybridge has patrons, and he who pays the piper names the tune,” Shaffer says. “What I loved about Muybridge was the way he hijacked his commissions. He was dependent on the resources of powerful interests, like the U.S. government, or railroads, or Leland Stanford, with their own agenda, who would hire him to serve them—and he did, he did it well, he wasn’t a social reformer in that respect, he was a tool of Western expansion—but as an artist he would always bend it in some bizarre way that part of me admired and couldn’t quite believe he got away with.”
Early in his career, Muybridge was hired to go to Alaska and take photographs of military ports and harbors. He did that, and also came back with wonderful pictures of the Native Tlingit people.
“This happens over and over and over again with him,” Shaffer says, “and I, as somebody who’s done a lot of commissioned film over the years, that’s always been a bit of my impulse as well. I’ve always had this subversive instinct to steal the commission and make the film I felt needed to be made. Which was often not exactly the film that the commissioner wanted or asked me to make. So when I saw that in his work I had a great appreciation for it.”
Exposing Muybridge raises a wealth of questions about the creation, the nature and the consumption of image-making. Because the work in question dates from more than 125 years ago, the debate is relevant without being charged. But there’s a crucial element of visual representation that Shaffer considers paramount.
“I think my film is pretty straightforward but I hope people leave the theater with a refreshed appreciation for just how powerful the machine is,” he declares. “And who controls it. That the power of that machine lies in the hands of the person who controls it, and the extent to which we are served or harmed by it has to do with how much we can trust the person behind the machine. That doesn’t mean they don’t have a point of view; everybody has a point a view. It doesn’t mean they don’t have an agenda of some kind. It has to do with the level of transparency and honesty with which they treat the audience.”
‘Exposing Muybridge’ screens in-theater at the Smith Rafael Film Center on Saturday, May 7 at 8pm. Online streaming is also available to California viewers. Details here.
Care about what’s happening in Bay Area arts? Stay informed with one email every other week—right to your inbox.