‘Nope’ and the Story Behind Muybridge’s Moving Pictures

The son of a coal merchant, Muybridge — who was born Edward James Muggeridge and would modify his name multiple times over the course of his life, adding and rearranging letters seemingly at random (he is also frequently identified as Eadweard Muybridge) — hailed from England and traveled to America at age 20 in search of fortune. He came to his eventual career late in life, after stints as a successful bookseller, an unsuccessful inventor, and a less successful venture capitalist.

While visiting Paris in an attempt to sell a patent for a printing process, he fell in with the brothers Berthaud, who ran a photography studio called Maison Hélios. The Berthauds eagerly taught Muybridge the tricks of the young trade, from cameras to lenses to developing. When he returned, to San Francisco, Muybridge set up shop as a photographer and did one of the few things more pretentious than changing his name from Edward to Eadweard: He rechristened himself Hélios.

This combination of artistic skill and technical ingenuity brought Muybridge to the attention of Leland Stanford. The wealthy former governor of California had become obsessed with horses — and not just owning and riding them, though he had plenty of opportunities for both on his 8,000-acre horse farm, the Palo Alto Stock Farm (on what would become the Stanford University campus). Instead, Stanford was singularly fixated on how horses ran, believing that when the animal reached a full gallop, all of its hooves were off the ground, making it, essentially, an airborne creature.

However, the movements of a galloping horse’s legs are too fast to be registered by the naked eye, and that was where Muybridge came in; perhaps, Stanford reasoned, a still camera could capture this phenomenon. But cameras and film stock were still barely faster than the human eye. “I therefore plainly told Mr. Stanford that such a thing had never been heard of,” Muybridge later wrote in the San Francisco Examiner, “that photography had not yet arrived at such wonderful perfection as would enable it to depict a trotting horse.” Stanford asked Muybridge to give it a shot anyway (and, presumably, offered him a nice chunk of change). After some effort, Muybridge devised a possible solution, reasoning that a spring-activated, high-speed shutter system might capture just enough of the light and the subject to prevent the blurring that, until then, plagued photos of objects in motion.

(And yes, it’s worth noting that the motion picture came about not as a new form of entertainment or enlightenment, but because some rich guy wanted to prove a point.)

A year and a half later, Stanford summoned a coterie of his rich and powerful friends to his mansion on San Francisco’s Nob Hill for another momentous event. They gathered in his parlor and watched as Muybridge fired up what he called his “zoopraxiscope,” a modified magic lantern–style projector. He turned a wheel of images within it, projecting, onto a screen, a two-second clip of a horse in motion. It was, it can be argued, the first exhibition of a “motion” picture.

“Muybridge was well known to everyone in the room,” Edward Ball writes in . “They had heard about the horse pictures, about Muybridge’s trick of capturing time. But like everyone else in California, the well-heeled spectators in the parlor knew there was more to the thin photographer than his work. They knew about the crime.”

In 1871, Muybridge had married Flora Downs, 21 years his junior. His frequent travels left his young wife feeling abandoned; she began seeing a young newspaperman named Harry Larkyns. In October 1874, Muybridge found out about the affair, and the enraged photographer took his Smith & Wesson No. 2 revolver to a cottage at the Yellow Jacket Mine, where Larkyns was employed. Several people were inside, enjoying a late-night card game, when Muybridge knocked on the door and asked for Larkyns; when he came to the door, Muybridge shot Larkyns in the chest, killing him. According to witnesses, Muybridge then apologized to the others in the cottage for the disturbance.