Muybridge in the parlor

A paper by Alexander Olson given at a recent American Studies Association Annual Meeting is one of the few on Muybridge to deal with subjects other than his locomotion studies or landscape photography.


The astonishing diversity of Eadweard Muybridge’s career usually has been compressed into the story of his motion studies. Initially funded by Leland Stanford to test whether all four legs of a horse leave the ground at any point in the gallop, these studies influenced artists such as Thomas Eakins and stirred a widespread debate on the positivist possibilities of representational technology. But while the motion studies depended on extreme brightness, rapid shutter speeds, and the flattening of the photographic field to the point of silhouette, other parts of Muybridge’s oeuvre tended in the opposite direction: shadows, clouds, and stereographic depth. In one 1868 advertisement, for example, Muybridge informed potential clients that he was “prepared to accept commissions to photograph Private Residences, Views, Animals, Ships, etc., anywhere in the city, and any portion of the Pacific Coast.”

My presentation will focus on one of these “private residences”—the San Francisco mansion of Kate and Robert Johnson. In 1880, Muybridge created a series of photographs of their residence using representational strategies that drastically differ from those of his motion studies. The albumen prints that comprised this series included spoof spirit photographs and playful arrangements of the mirrors, paintings, and bric-a-brac crammed into every corner of the mansion. The transgression of boundaries between animate and inanimate, corporeality and disembodiment, suggest that Muybridge held a more capacious idea of photographic “proof” than what his motion studies might lead one to expect. The goal of my paper is not only to reappraise a photographic practitioner often thought to exemplify the power of the image to adjudicate truth claims in the name of objective knowledge; I also aim to raise questions about spirit photography as a vehicle of cultural and representational play.

Olson, Alexander. “Muybridge in the Parlor” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hyatt Regency, Albuquerque, New Mexico. 2009-10-26