Animal Locomotion


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.

Plate 379 01
Plate 379 02
Plate 379 03

Plate 380 01
Plate 380 02
Plate 380 03


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.

Plate 491 03
Plate 491 04

—Jeff Burks

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21 Responses to Animal Locomotion

  1. Jeff Burks says:

    Rumor has it that the man in Plate 379 is the model Chris has selected for the final design of his buttock implants. All readers who contribute $1000 or more to his Kickstarter page will receive their own loin cloth made from scraps of campaign leather, and a photographic calendar of Chris working in his shop post surgery, in the style of Muybridge. You don’t want to miss this opportunity!

  2. Well now we know what one’s stuff looks like when they are using an axe.

  3. Wow! It’s fascinating to watch the human body performing practical tasks. Thanks for taking the time to post this.

  4. Ben Lowery says:

    Reblogged this on b19y and commented:

    Really cool sequences of naked dudes doing woodworking and blacksmithing tasks, shot back in the 1880s and turned into GIFs.

    Warning: dongs. But dongs in the pursuit of science.

    • jwatriss says:

      The last time we saw Chris doing ‘science,’ he smashed an old tool with a hammer.

      In this context, maybe not something we want to see…

  5. carpenterman says:

    Eadweard Muybridges work is one of the oldest, if not THE oldest serious analysis of Human and Animal motion, and represents ever since a seminal work on the subject. To this day, his books are used by animators in the movie industry world wide for reference and research how the body behaves in motion, it goes far beyond proving that a horses legs are in midair at one point, it shows the exact sequence of how the legs fall, and in what order they hit the ground, at what point the weight shifts from one leg to another etc etc. Muybridges studies are the “Roubo” and “Moxons” of the animation industry, think of the nudity as the photographic equivalent of “live drawing”. You cant analyze motion if its covered by cloth.

    I am surprised and delighted to see his work discussed on your woodworking blog. Thank you.
    Perhaps soon we might see pictures of “Master Geppettos” workshop as designed by Swiss artist Albert Hurter: (towards the bottom of the page)

  6. Damien says:

    The athletic old man, if I remember right it is Muybridge himself.

    • Jeff Burks says:

      Indeed, you are correct. I had intended to include that information among other things, but I ran out of time this morning.

  7. rondennis303 says:

    Seeing the opening photo reminded me of a recording by Joe Bonamassa, “Jockey Full of Bourbon”. Enjoy some rollicking Blues via YouTube, LIVE at the Vienna Opera House:

  8. Bob Jones says:

    Neat. An early biomechanics study. Nowadays the guy would be in spandex covered with shiny balls. No pun intended.

  9. Last Summer, I recommended this blog to my 14 year old nephew that expressed an interest in hand tools. My brother (my nephew’s father) just called me and was very angry with me. He said that my nephew had been following the blog and when he saw this post he yelled, “Ewww! Gross!!!” My brother went over to see what my nephew was reacting to and saw this post. It was also the first time he had actually seen the blog that I had recommended to my nephew.

    I have reported this post to WordPress as a violation of their terms of service in regards to mature content. As one of the WordPress staff said in a response to another questioner:
    “What is Mature? If only it were easy to say… Genital images – definitely unless the blog is educational (and yes, we know the difference between education and not)”

    I hardly think that full genital nudity falls within the education process of woodworking.

    I will not let this sort of thing go. How in the world are we to feel comfortable enough to encourage our youth to seek information about woodworking if we are afraid of them stumbling upon filth like this?

    But maybe I am overreacting. Maybe the world of traditional woodworking needs more images of naked old men – regardless of what they are doing.

    Now feel free to sling every personal attack that you can think of at me.

    • Damien says:

      It was a blog entry about a 19th century (academic) study on movement related to woodworking, and now we have also a text about young S** reaction to male nudity.

    • It’s not meant as a personal attack, but I’m shocked that the nudity is what you focus on. I can understand the reaction from your nephew. It’s a typical reaction for a 14-year-old. But in this context the nudity is not a subject, it’s a device for showing how the bones, muscles and skin move when performing certain actions. You might have considered this an opportunity to teach your nephew about the difference between sexually oriented content (which I can understand you don’t want children confronted with) and images where there happen to be no clothes on and where body parts happen to be visible that you don’t normally see. Seems to me like that’s better than confirming his feeling that a naked body is ‘eww’ and ‘gross’.

      Mind you: I do understand this is a cultural thing. On our Dutch woodworking blog the reaction was ‘Ha ha, they had no clothes on in those days”. I don’t think anyone there would mistake this for ‘mature’ content. Just quaint, interesting historical imagery.

    • raney says:

      I am trying to find an interpretation that could possibly construe this as anything BUT education.

      I’m sorry for your nephew and brother if they are truly that offended by a clearly educational and scientific depiction of ‘eeww gross’ male anatomy, but I for one would really fight strongly against eliminating valuable content to suit the lowest common denominator of male maturity.

      The post was clearly marked with an alert, and has quite clear and demonstrated value, both as science and as history. Please consider that your attempt to ‘shut it down’ (which I’m quite certain will meet failure) deprives those of us who are mature enough to deal with human anatomy of burks’ research.

      PC is never more clearly intrusive than when it seeks to limit learning. I was 14 once, and as I recall I was expected to learn how to approach the world maturely. I recall no one requiring the world to conform to my childish views….

    • tsstahl says:

      Finally, a market for my livestock pants!

      Flip remark aside, I do respect your opinion, though I don’t agree. I hope you choose to stay around, though.

  10. I’m surprised that the planing bloke uses such a high bench (must be around 38″ I think?). I thought the rationale for low benches was to be able to use body mass, but his motion seems to be all torso and arms. And it really doesn’t seem as if he’s taking fluffy shavings, it seems to be a pretty rank cut.

    • I think It’s possible that the images don’t truly represent the man’s normal practices. The photograph is staged specifically to record this particular motion and I would imagine this probably took place in some kind of studio rather than in the model’s personal shop or workplace. If this is the case, it’s possible, even likely, that this is not the model’s own bench either and that might explain why it is taller than we might expect.

  11. Marhk says:

    Note how high the bench is in the planing man sequence. He uses arms and torso muscles but not leg muscles. The younger man sawing is not looking at his line and appears to be posing for the camera. The muscle use is instructive but the actual work characteristics may not be. I also found it interesting that the sawing men used the entire blade. Very useful pictures from another time!

  12. A very interesting post. Thanks.

  13. whatever about the height of the bench but if he keeps planing that one spot hes going to have one big dip in that board!

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