Eadweard Muybridge (1830–1904) is now celebrated as one of the great innovators in the history of photography. During the 1870s and 1880s he was at the forefront of technical advances that, for the first time, enabled the camera to record movement in split-seconds, and in the process captured images that the human eye had never seen before. Though his well-known photographic endeavours were entirely undertaken in the United States, principally in California and Pennsylvania, Muybridge was born in Britain at Kingston upon Thames in 1830, and died there in 1904. He was actually christened Edward James Muggeridge, but assumed his new identity after emigrating to New York in the early 1850s. It was not until 1867, following the American Civil War, that he emerged as a photographer. Over the following years, he quickly established himself with images that documented his adopted home of San Francisco and charted the progressive dynamism of the new nation.
Documenting California and the Pacific Coast
Where Muybridge learned his skill as a photographer remains unknown. After an accident in 1860 affected his vision, he returned to Britain, where he remained until 1866, his absence coinciding with the American Civil War. This was also a period of notable advances in British photography. It is likely he absorbed the principles of the new art in London. After returning to San Francisco, Muybridge’s first documented photographs date from 1867, when he worked for five months in the Yosemite Valley. It was already the focus of tourist itineraries that provided Muybridge with a ready market for his images. Ever alert to commercial opportunities, he published the majority of his early views as stereographs. These were small cards with two photographs of the same subject, though each offered a slightly different perspective. Looked at through a handheld viewer, the image is transformed into a composite three-dimensional scene. Millions of these cards were sold throughout the 1860s to a public with an unceasing appetite for unfamiliar and extraordinary images. In identifying himself as a ‘view artist’, Muybridge sought to survey the booming state of California, simultaneously documenting the technologies, such as the railroad, that now linked it with the east coast.