Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 9, 2018
Sarah Gordon Indecent Exposures: Eadweard Muybridge's "Animal Locomotion" Nudes New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2015. 184 pp.; 80 color ills.; 17 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780300209488)

Eadweard Muybridge (born Edward Muggeridge) is either a Victorian eccentric remote from our understanding or a man for our time. Or both. Dedicated to the intersection of imaging, technology, and the cutting-edge science of his day, Muybridge was a flamboyant self-promoter, ambitious immigrant, and reinventor of self. He was also the larger-than-life assassin of his young wife’s lover and the sometime friend of plutocrat and former California governor Leland Stanford, as well as a participant in not one but two extremely important phases of nineteenth-century photographic practice, exploratory landscape photography and stop-action motion study. He was both the man behind the camera in many hundreds of sequences of images of nude human figures in motion and—occasionally—one of those nudes himself. The vast compilation of images that he published in many volumes as Animal Locomotion included men, women, children, and a wide variety of animals engaged in a bewildering panoply of motions before a battery of cameras in a motion study lab/photographic studio sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania.

His colorful life has unfailingly attracted attention to his work, yet no clear picture of the man’s experience in relation to his work emerges. Muybridge’s story is the stuff public television miniseries are made of, but instead he has figured in Philip Glass’s chamber opera The Photographer, as well as in an increasingly robust body of scholarship and biography, now including Sarah Gordon’s exemplary book Indecent Exposures, Eadweard Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion Nudes. Dedicated to a single aspect of Muybridge’s sprawling body of work—the reception of the nude figure studies—Indecent Exposures manages to engage with many other aspects of Muybridge’s work, as well as with later nineteenth-century American image culture in general. The use of the particular to illuminate the broader phenomenon is precisely what Muybridge’s own work is about, so this book’s form is consonant with both its content and argument. Its most original contribution is Gordon’s treatment of Muybridge as a complex figure whose work was created through intricate networks of collaboration rather than a two-dimensional, larger-than-life solitary auteur.

Universally acclaimed since its publication, Animal Locomotion is typically construed either as a masterwork of photography produced by Muybridge or as an instance of the medium of film waiting to be born. Gordon now repositions Animal Locomotion in the context of its production as a multiply authored technical analysis of the physiology of movement, a source of prestige for its sponsoring institution, and an index to the body-related anxieties and preoccupations of the later nineteenth century. Investigating the collaboration between Muybridge’s models and his University of Pennsylvania colleagues and supervisors and focusing on the “subjects of individual frames and the composition of pages” (2), Gordon explores the role the nudes played both in endangering the project and in achieving its great success while also offering new perspectives on Muybridge’s earlier landscape work and his changing relationship with Stanford, his previous patron.

How was it possible that a vast compendium of nude figures, often engaged in indecorous activities, became not a scandal but a prestige project for the university that underwrote it, a triumph of physiological analysis for scientists and clinicians, and a landmark of the history of photography? Gordon’s assessment that “Muybridge’s desire for a monumental, exhaustive study epitomized the avid search for new knowledge that erupted in the 1880s” (54) is actually less helpful than her more specific accounts of the ways in which Muybridge turned the living bodies of his subjects into data sets through the use of multiple cameras and gridded backgrounds. Gordon presents the publication of Animal Locomotion not merely as a photographic event but as a revolutionary enterprise that “enabled a shift from generalized to specialist medical research and traditional to modern forms of [medical] diagnosis and treatment” (10) and played a significant role in the international scientific debates over the acceptance of Darwinian evolution.

Gordon’s greatest contribution is in her exploration of Muybridge’s place in the dense, intimate web of relationships in Philadelphia academic, scientific, and artistic circles. British by birth, Muybridge has most often been discussed in relation to the American West, where both his earliest landscapes and motion-study photographs were made; for instance, Rebecca Solnit’s lyrical River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (New York: Viking, 2003) situates Muybridge in relation to the culture of California in the 1870s. In Gordon’s analysis, however, Muybridge’s saga turns out to be a Philadelphia story. The transposition of the westerner to the east inverts the usual formulation of Eastern (and European) photographers moving west and opens up the discussion of photography and research to new terms. Innovations in imaging motion emerged from the newly affluent and ambitious American West to help shape the emerging international culture of research and imaging.

By 1884, Muybridge was no longer working in the outdoor motion-study lab he’d designed on Stanford’s private racetrack but had become an academic researcher in an elite Ivy League institution nestled in the bosom of the Philadelphia intellectual establishment. He ceased to be an artist/entrepreneur working for a plutocratic patron and became part of a scientific team funded by the university administration on the initiative of its ambitious provost, William Pepper, who convened an advisory commission of scientists, doctors, and artists to oversee Muybridge’s work. The central theme of Gordon’s book is the rise of professionalism and photography’s supporting role in the professionalized pursuit of scientific knowledge and the capturing of the invisible as fully visualized data. Here, Muybridge’s story coincides with that of one of the Muybridge Commission members, Thomas Eakins. A wealth of scholarship has attended to Eakins’s representations of Philadelphia’s professional figures and to his own contested and conflict-filled status as a professional. As Gordon explains, “In a feat of historic importance, the men of science and art on the Muybridge Commission deployed their socioeconomic class and professional affiliations with the university to overcome prohibitions and prejudices and to make Muybridge’s project a reality” (77).

The Animal Locomotion project developed against a backdrop of national obscenity prosecutions by Anthony Comstock and his Philadelphia follower Josiah Leeds’s anti-obscenity campaigns. What Gordon describes as Muybridge’s lifelong “sense of the spectacular” and devotion to making visible what cannot be seen was potentially endangered by charges of obscenity, risking the kind of controversy Eakins encountered at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art. Gordon’s argument that Animal Locomotion’s supervision by the distinguished commission and its being embedded in the scientific research program of the University of Pennsylvania allowed it to avoid controversies over public encounters with the nude figure that marred Eakins’s career and her contention that its greatest power inheres in the suspended perspectives and grotesque bodies form a tightly wrapped helix. Through these arguments, we can see the story of Muybridge’s production of Animal Locomotion unfold from frame to frame, chapter to chapter, as lucidly as if it were recorded against a dark, gridded background.

Dismantling the mystique of authorship in favor of a more contextual understanding of a photographic archive requires enormous specialized knowledge. Gordon’s expertise—in particular, her insight into the local culture of Philadelphia in the 1880s, including the scientific, medical, university, and art communities, as well as into the relationships between the different actors engaged in the production of Animal Locomotion—enables the contextualization of Muybridge’s work in relation to its audiences and the contributions of his collaborators. This book is a model of resourceful, capable archival analysis, particularly as regards the writings by medical professor Francis Dercum that accompanied the volumes of Animal Locomotion and the state of diagnostic theory and practice of the day.

It’s a commonplace today to frame discussion of the art of the past with discussion of the contemporary so that artists of the past are validated or recuperated more for their connection to the practice of contemporary figures than for any other reason, just as it was once art history’s stock in trade to consider modern art in relation to its potential sources in the past. In both cases the basic impulse to identify the densely woven, richly textured tapestry of changing culture over time is more than valid. But addressing the past through the perspective of the present can have the effect of reducing its significance to its relevance to the concerns of today. Muybridge is certainly a figure whose work speaks to contemporaries in many ways, but Gordon certainly is not guilty of that reductive approach. That said, the conclusion of the book, “Still Exposed,” is a less-powerful contribution than are earlier chapters such as “Muybridge East and West” and “Distributing the Nudes.” That’s a small criticism of a splendid book, whose dual attention to how-it-was and what-concerns-us-now is as gracefully balanced as its reading of images and image sequences is able. Indecent Exposures is also notable for its polished writing and unusual in its success at toggling between the large view of intellectual history and the specifics of the production of Animal Locomotion without loss of clarity.

Ellen Handy
Associate Professor, Art Department, City College of New York, City University of New York