Muybridge Photographs a Galloping Horse

Eadweard Muybridge developed camera equipment and techniques to take high-speed photographs of animals and humans in motion and demonstrated for the first time in history that galloping horses lift all their feet off the ground simultaneously. He also invented an early predecessor to the motion picture projector.

Summary of Event

Born in Kingston-on-the-Thames, England, Eadweard Muybridge came to the United States in 1852 as a representative of the London Printing and Publishing Company when he was twenty-two. Three years later, he settled in San Francisco, where he learned photography from a daguerreotype photographer, Silas Selleck Selleck, Silas , during the early 1860’s. Muybridge next worked for Carleton Watkins, an important landscape photographer. Muybridge, Eadweard
Photography;Eadweard Muybridge[Muybridge]
Horses;and photography[Photography]
Stanford, Leland
[kw]Muybridge Photographs a Galloping Horse (1878)
[kw]Photographs a Galloping Horse, Muybridge (1878)
[kw]Galloping Horse, Muybridge Photographs a (1878)
[kw]Horse, Muybridge Photographs a Galloping (1878)
Muybridge, Eadweard
Photography;Eadweard Muybridge[Muybridge]
Horses;and photography[Photography]
Stanford, Leland
[g]United States;1878: Muybridge Photographs a Galloping Horse[4990]
[c]Photography;1878: Muybridge Photographs a Galloping Horse[4990]
[c]Science and technology;1878: Muybridge Photographs a Galloping Horse[4990]
[c]Motion pictures;1878: Muybridge Photographs a Galloping Horse[4990]
Marey, Étienne-Jules

Muybridge first gained recognition for his dramatic photographs of California’s Yosemite Valley Yosemite Valley
California;Yosemite Valley . In 1868, he was selected as the official photographer for the U.S. military in Alaska, which the United States had purchased from Russia the previous year. From then until 1873, Muybridge took more than two thousand photographs of the American West—mostly of Yosemite, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Alaska. During those years, he invented one of the first mechanical camera shutters.

In the spring of 1872, Leland Stanford, who had made his fortune in railroading and served as governor of California, invited Muybridge to discuss a photographic project. Stanford wanted to use scientific methods to develop the greatest stable of racehorses in the American West. He particularly wanted to know how horses move their legs when they gallop—a motion so rapid that individuals watching horses run disagree about what they see. Stanford was especially curious about whether four of a horse’s feet leave the ground at one time as it gallops. Stanford proposed that Muybridge use photography to freeze the movements of a galloping horse. As Muybridge later stated, he was “perfectly amazed at the boldness and originality of the proposition,” and he accepted Stanford’s challenge.

Other photographers had attempted to take pictures of rapid movements, but none had succeeded in capturing an event that occurred too rapidly to be seen with the human eye. The photographic plates available during the 1870’s were not very sensitive to light, and the mechanical shutters of cameras were not very fast. Hence, exposure times of tens of seconds were common, making rapidly moving objects appear as blurs. To accomplish Stanford’s objective, Muybridge had to develop new photographic techniques and instruments.

Muybridge began his efforts at Stanford’s Sacramento, California, ranch. However, his work there was interrupted when he was arrested for killing an army officer named Harry Larkyns in 1874. A jury ruled Muybridge’s act justifiable homicide, but Muybridge nevertheless decided to leave California temporarily. In 1875, he went to Central America and resumed landscape photography.

In 1876, Muybridge returned to California and resumed his project to photograph Stanford’s horses. He developed a new type of camera shutter that made possible exposures of only one-thousandth of a second. His shutter consisted of two sliding pieces, each having a narrow, rectangular slit. The slides were pulled in opposite directions by rubber bands. Photographic plates were thus exposed only during the short intervals when one slit passed in front of the other.

In 1878, Muybridge’s project moved to Palo Alto, where Stanford had established a stock ranch. During that same year, Muybridge used twenty-four cameras, spaced along a fifty-foot length of the track where Stanford’s horse ran. Each camera, which took a single frame, was triggered by a trip-wire stretched across the track, activating its shutter as the horse passed before it. Muybridge was successful, not only in producing a sequence of photographs of a galloping horse, but in showing, for the first time, that a horse lifted all four of its legs off the ground at the same time. Afterward, Stanford arranged to have the results of Muybridge’s work published in The Horse in Motion (1882), written by Jacob Stillman, who was Stanford’s personal physician. Although the book included his photographs, Muybridge complained that it was published without his name on the title page. Because Stanford’s Palo Alto stock farm later became the site of Stanford University, Muybridge’s photographic studies are now regarded as the first research project on that site.

Muybridge’s ideas for photographing horses appear to have been inspired, in part, by the work of the French scientist Étienne-Jules Marey Marey, Étienne-Jules . Marey had suggested in his book La Machine animale: Locomotion terrestre et aérienne (1873; Animal Mechanism: A Treatise on Terrestrial and Aërial Locomotion, 1874) that a sequence of images of animals in motion could be displayed using a zoetrope, a cylindrical device in which the viewer looks through a series of slits in a rotating drum at a sequence of pictures placed at equal distances on the opposite sides of the drum. As the drum rotates, the viewer sees a progression of images that create the illusion of a single picture in motion. After reading Marey’s book, Muybridge invented a device he called the zoöpraxiscope Zoöpraxiscope , which projected a slow-motion sequence of images of objects in motion.

During the fall of 1881, Muybridge lectured in Europe, intent on establishing his reputation as the creator of the techniques for studying motion using photography. While in Paris, Marey Marey, Étienne-Jules introduced him to many artistic and scientific leaders. The enthusiastic response to his lectures inspired Muybridge to look for ways to continue his photographic studies. In February of 1883, he lectured at the Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, where he used his zoöpraxiscope to show images of humans and animals in motion. Fairman Rogers, the director of the Academy, and Thomas Eakins, a prominent American painter, persuaded William Pepper, the provost of the University of Pennsylvania, to hire Muybridge and provide the facilities and financial support he needed to continue his studies.

In a private demonstration in Stanford’s house during the fall of 1879, Muybridge projected a sequence of images of Stanford’s horse in motion using his new zoöpraxiscope, Zoöpraxiscope which can be considered to be a primitive motion picture Motion pictures;projection of projector. He demonstrated a zoöpraxiscope in public during a lecture at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco San Francisco;California School of Fine Arts in 1880. Muybridge lectured and showed sequences of humans in motion in the Zoopraxographical Hall, a forerunner of the movie theater, which was a popular exhibit at the World’s Columbian Chicago World’s Fair (1893)[Chicago Worlds Fair (1893)] Exposition in Chicago in 1893. His invention of the zoöpraxiscope, the first device that projected a sequence of images of an object in motion, has given rise to the suggestion that he was the true founder of modern motion pictures.

Between 1884 and 1886, Muybridge worked in the courtyard of the Veterinary Hall and Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. He used new technology including dry plates that were more sensitive to light than his earlier wet plates and worked with W. D. Marks to develop an electromagnetic clockwork shutter. By 1885, he was using three rows of twelve cameras each. One row was parallel to the subject, while the others were set at positions sixty and ninety degrees to the subject, thereby recording the motion from a variety of angles. At the University of Pennsylvania, Muybridge and his co-workers exposed more than twenty thousand negatives, many of which he published in a portfolio called Animal Locomotion (1887).

During his career, Muybridge photographically documented the movements of a wide variety of animals, including horses, goats, cats, gnus, eagles, gazelles, sloths, camels, and birds. Using these photographs, he identified 132 characteristic animal motions. He also studied human motion. He exhibited and sold these photographs to the public, as he had with his landscape photographs earlier in his career. Muybridge never regarded his motion studies to be completely successful, because he sold only twenty-seven complete sets of the Animal Locomotion portfolio. However, he sold many of his smaller, one-hundred-print sets, mostly to artists and libraries. Muybridge later returned to his birthplace, where he died in 1904.


Before Muybridge began his experiments on the photography of moving objects, he considered himself an artist. However, as his focus narrowed to motion studies, he regarded his work as scientific. That judgment has since been disputed by scholars who have noted the extreme lack of scientific rigor in Muybridge’s studies when compared with those of Marey Marey, Étienne-Jules . Nevertheless, Muybridge’s photographs ushered in an era of scientific uses of photography. His work also had a significant influence on the visual arts. His Animal Locomotion became an important resource for artists who were interested in accurately depicting animals and humans in their paintings and drawings. Moreover, while Muybridge himself had no great interest in creating moving images—which he saw as the opposite of his project of separating motion into discrete still moments, his work had a profound influence on the development of motion pictures Motion pictures by Thomas Alva Edison Edison, Thomas Alva and the Lumière Lumière, August
Lumière, Louis brothers.

Further Reading

  • Haas, Robert. Muybridge: Man in Motion. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976. Full account of Muybridge’s life, his collaboration with Stanford, and his photography.
  • Hendricks, Gordon. Eadweard Muybridge. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 2001. Exploration of Muybridge’s photographic work, recounting his early life in England and his work as a photographer in San Francisco. Hendricks also discusses his stormy relationship with Leland Stanford.
  • Muybridge, Eadweard. Animals in Motion. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 1957. Reprint of Muybridge’s collection of more than 3,900 photographs of thirty-four different animals. Includes Muybridge’s written observations on animal movements.
  • Prodger, Philip and Gunning, Tom. Time Stands Still: Muybridge and the Instantaneous Photography Movement. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2003. Written to accompany an exhibition of Muybridge’s photography, this book describes the improvements in photographic chemistry, optics, shutter technology, and other components required to make the study of animal motion possible.
  • Solnit, Rebecca. River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West. New York: Viking Books, 2003. Controversial account of the development of technology in America that suggests that the high-technology industries of California’s Silicon Valley and the Hollywood movie industry can be traced back to innovations by Stanford and Muybridge.

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Stanford, Leland