Artists in Kingston were recently invited to submit work to Kingston Museum for a exhibition later this year entitled My Muybridge. I knew about Eadweard Muybridge as the guy who took photographs of moving animals and people; and established that when horses trot there is a moment when all four hooves are off the ground at the same time. He was brought up in Kingston and left all his equipment and slides to Kingston Museum. Now the Museum are planning an exhibition of contemporary work responding to their Muybridge photographic collection, what he achieved in a historical context, and his legacy in the contemporary world.
I knew as soon as I got the invitation that I wanted to respond; this post is about the jumble of ideas that led to making a new piece of work. I don’t usually find it easy to respond to specific themed calls for work but this one resonated with things I’m already interested in.
His sequences of photographs of motion were one of the things I had in the back of my mind when I started experimenting with trying to capture myself drawing using long exposure photographs. My first attempts didn’t work at all how I expected but I learned enough to enable me to try again, producing some interesting images. These captured some aspects of movement but also raised questions about how my body merged into or emerged from the background, creating an abstracted non-human form. I made other images focussed on the movement of specific parts of my body, particularly my hands and arms. (If you click on the images below, a larger version will pop up.)
So I was already interested in the idea of capturing motion, but mostly I was capturing multiple moments of movement in one image.
When I started to read more about Muybridge I was struck by an aspect of ‘doubling’ in his practice. He was already a commercially successful photographer, when he was commissioned by Leland Stanford to resolve the question of whether a trotting horse has all four feet off the ground at any one stage in its stride. He set up a camera shed at Stanford’s stud farm in Palo Alto, with 12, and later 24, cameras, each with shutter attached to a thread. As a horse trotted in front of the row of cameras, it broke the threads in turn, causing the shutters to drop, so the cameras took instant exposures in series. Muybridge published a book of these and other series, which analysed motion moment by moment in a way that had not previously been possible.
Muybridge used these photographs to make strips for the ‘zoopraxiscope’, a hand-cranked machine which projected a series of images onto a screen and in effect recreated the movement of the horse from the photographs. He used it in lectures about his work. Although this kind of early ‘movie’ was very popular, he really wanted to be remembered for his analytical motion photography. Presumably that was because this represented new scientific knowledge: breaking down motion into separate moments.
But of course, the two things are umbilically connected: he makes the moment-by-moment photographs to show how movement works; then he recombines the moment-by-moment photographs to recreate animated motion.
I started to think about using drawing to break down a movement, to produce a kind of drawn version of a long-exposure photograph, or a drawn version of a Muybridge sequence. This raises the question: why use drawing to capture something that can more easily, more precisely be captured by photographs? That took me back to the technique of blind contour drawing, which I have used for years as a kind of private practice. The idea is that you draw looking only at the subject, not the paper. You don’t take your pen or pencil off the paper and you follow the contours of the subject with your eyes, allowing your hand to follow in its own way. Here are a few I have done of my left hand: it’s a great subject as it’s always with you and if, like me, you are right-handed, it’s easy to set up to draw your left hand blind, with the paper and your right hand out of view.
Drawings like these are a record of what you are looking at and how you transmit that to your drawing hand. Each one is capturing something of the artist’s frame of mind; I can see how much the drawings are affected by my level of focus/distraction.
My first attempts at making blind drawings of a sequence of hands in motion between two gestures showed that it is quite difficult to hold a ‘mid-gesture’ position. In fact it’s quite hard to determine what counts as a ‘movement’, a discernible step from one position to another. My fellow MA Drawing alumna, Nic Clarke, works with animation and one of her interests is capturing ‘a moment that implies a ‘before and after’’. How do we recognise that a moment or a gesture is part of a sequence that we can understand? Animators have a number of ‘frames per second’ that they work to but if you aren’t trying to create a smooth animated gesture, there is no mathematical way to decide how to record a series of ‘frames’ so that they will make sense as a record of movement. You just have to try it out.
In the end, I decided to limit the number of separate drawn hands in the final piece. More hands, with smaller differences between them, just seemed like bad animation. Fewer hands – I ended up with six – allow both artist and viewer to pay more attention to what the drawing conveys about the process of studying the hand and drawing it. The final piece, Analysis of Motion, hovers between that photographic ‘moment by moment’ understanding of motion and what is conveyed by the selectivity of drawn marks.