Last year we discussed the work of 19th century British photographer William Henry Fox Talbot. A print attributed to Talbot circa 1844, known as ‘Carpenter and Apprentice‘, may be the oldest surviving photograph of woodworkers.
The subject of this blog entry is the work of Eadweard Muybridge, known to many as the man who provided photographic evidence that a galloping horse could have all four hooves off the ground at the same time. You have probably seen his photographs whether you recognize his name or not. Many are not aware that Muybridge also photographed woodworkers. His studies may contain the oldest images of woodworking in action.
Muybridge had a penchant for photographing his models in the nude. His woodworking images depict semi-nude and fully nude males. If you have a problem with nudity, or are browsing this blog from work, you might want to skip this post.
Photography has its earliest beginnings in the 1830’s when most efforts were directed toward the science of capturing photographs and making the results permanent. Once the basic problems were solved, photographers moved on to new ideas. By the 1860’s a number of photographers were experimenting with “moving pictures” using a technique known as Chronophotography, defined as “a set of photographs of a moving object, taken for the purpose of recording and exhibiting successive phases of motion.”
At this time the motion picture camera (using roll film) had not yet been invented. All cameras were bulky contraptions that took significant time to load and prep for a single exposure. To get around this limitation the photographers would set up a series of cameras and trigger them sequentially. The downside of this technique becomes evident when the resulting images are “played back” flip-book style. Because each frame is captured from a slightly different location, the moving picture suffers from shifting perspective of the foreground and background objects.
To quote Wikipedia: “In 1872, Leland Stanford, former governor of California and horse enthusiast, hired Eadweard Muybridge to provide photographic proof that at some instants a galloping horse has all four hooves off the ground. Muybridge lined part of a racecourse with a row of cameras that had shutters connected to a series of tripwires, then photographed a horse against a white background as it galloped past. One of the resulting silhouette photographs provided the desired proof. Later in the decade, with the benefit of more sensitive photographic plates, he obtained greatly improved results. Muybridge also arranged such sequences of photographs in order around the inner surface of a zoetrope; when the drum-like device was set spinning, an observer looking through its slots saw an animated image.”
Muybridge’s story is a fascinating one. He fell out with Stanford after he was denied credit for his photography in the published work on horses, murdered the man he suspected of having an affair with his young wife, and went into exile in South America. When he returned to America in 1883, Muybridge was able to get funding from the University of Pennsylvania to work on a massive photography study known as Animal Locomotion.
Between 1883 and 1886, Muybridge made more than 100,000 photographs for this project using three batteries of cameras, each containing a line of twelve lenses with plate holders and one focusing lens. Muybridge used this setup to capture action sequences of everyday motion. This work would eventually be published in 11 volumes, all of which have been scanned and made available at Wikimedia Commons. Many of the sequences have been converted to animations, some of which can be seen here.
Animal Locomotion Volume II: Plate 379 depicts a man planing at a work bench. The 12-shot action sequence is photographed from three different angles. Similarly, plate 380 depicts the same man sawing a board from three different angles in an 8-shot sequence. Click on the images to see a high resolution copy of each plate. I have taken the liberty of converting these photo series into animations, which you can view by clicking the links below.
Animal Locomotion Volume V: Plate 491 depicts four 10-shot sequences of a naked old man engaged in blacksmithing and woodworking tasks. I have animated the two sequences showing the man splitting wood with a hatchet and sawing a board.