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Sallie Gardner at a Gallop (1878)

Eadweard Muybridge | United States of America | 1878

The history of being able to view images in motion is nearly two millennia old. It started with Ting Huan’s chao hua chich kuan (the pipe which makes fantasies appear), an early version of the zoetrope developed in 180 AD under the Han Dynasty, and the camera obscura, dating from the 6th century experiments of Anthemius of Tralles in the Byzantine Empire. However, most of the devices were developed during the Industrial Revolution, which included Étienne-Gaspard Robert’s Fantoscope, John Ayrton Paris’ Thaumatrope, Joseph Plateau’s Anorthoscope and Phenakistiscope, Simon Stampler’s Stroboscope, William George Horner’s Zoetrope, Franz von Uchatius’ Kinetiscope, Alexander Parkes’ Parkesine, Samuel Goodale’s Stereoscope and Coleman Sellers II’s Kinematoscope. The key to all of these devices was their ability to project images in motion, but what was still lacking is the ability to capture images in motion.

The development of photography from Louis Daguerre onwards has allowed the potential of shooting images in motion, yet it took as late as 1878 for the first successful experiment to take place. The British photographer, Eadweard Muybridge, set the scene by aligning twenty-four cameras in order to take successive pictures of a horse (‘Sallie Gardner’) in motion. The final result, exhibited in 1880 using his Zoopraxiscope, showed to the world a horse galloping, uninterrupted, thus shattering the illusion of the static photograph for the very first time.

Whereas Sallie Gardner at a Gallop is not technically a film in the traditional sense as established by Le Prince a decade later, it still inherits the key ingredients that give us a flavour of the medium. Despite not being filmed from one point of view, using a single device to take consecutive pictures, the final result is nonetheless aimed at being viewed from a single point of view. Muybridge’s experiment proved that human perception is limited in its ability to identify the missing images of time and space unless the final result is ‘close’ enough at reproducing reality. Zeno of Elea’s Arrow Paradox, still central to film’s role in the reproduction of motion, was made evident here for the very first time. Each frame of the film image is in essence a motionless photograph, and therefore the concatenation of any other image, irrespective of how ‘close’ in time and space it was taken, should therefore produce nothing but a motionless image. Alas, film, ever since Eadweard Muybridge, has taught us otherwise.

The irony of Sallie Gardner at a Gallop is that audiences were able to see for the first time images that they were unable to distinguish with the bare eye. Leland Stanford sponsored the project precisely because he could not see whether or not a horse does lift all four legs while galloping. The slow-downed image presented by Muybridge made it possible to distinguish life running at 58 km/h. The discovery thus laid-down the foundation for all the visual tricks the cinematic world is to bring throughout its history in order to distort our perception so that we confuse it for reality.

Throughout his subsequent career, Muybridge exploited the same technical means of capturing images in motion by filming a variety of animals and humans, thus contributing to the expansion not so much of film as a medium, but rather of our knowledge of zoology and anatomy in the first instance, and locomotion more specifically. His research at the University of Pennsylvania led to the creation of over 100,000 images, all contributing to a substantial body of work in the field for both the university, but also Muybridge himself, allowing him to position himself not only as a photographer, but also a scientist in his own right.

Muybridge’s interest in locomotion would not have gained the prestige in time, had it not been for the continuous sponsorship he received for his projects. With Sallie Gardner at a Gallop we witness the key factors that contribute to the creation of film as a viable industry. First and foremost, Stanford’s investment acts as an early indicator for the necessity of a producer in the making of a film, the individual in charge of managing the finances for the project, but also the one responsible for the selection of the content, as well as the hiring of the key staff such as director, editor, production designer etc. In this case in particular, Stanford oversaw the set-up of the shooting set at Pala Alto Stock Farm, providing all the key technical resources, but also selecting the key ‘actors’ for the experiment. What is important, however, is that he gave Muybridge the freedom to specify precisely the requirements on how the set is to be designed, to identify the right apparatuses he needed, as well as the control over the nature of how the final film would look like. In essence, we see the origins of the dynamic relationship between artistic freedom and financial constraints that is to mark the nature of how film as an industry has developed over the years.

“A poet needs a pen, a painter a brush, and a filmmaker an army” said Orson Welles[1]. From the very early stages in the development of the film medium we notice that this statement was accurate. Unlike some of the other early experiments in motion pictures, if successful, Sallie Gardner at a Gallop was aimed for public consumption, with that we notice both an investment in terms of technical capacity in the project and also in artistic value. Muybridge’s photographic work in the 1870s gained enough artistic recognition to incentivise Stanford to opt for a director that is capable and, most importantly, popular. The media reaction that followed did treat the film merely for its scientific breakthrough, but it is arguably the clarity of Muybridge’s images that allowed for a successful reception in the first place.

With this in mind, we can conclude that the artistic value in a film is not paramount, but it serves as a key ingredient towards the satisfaction of viewing it. The variety of uses of the film medium, from fiction to documentary evidence (which in itself expands into the realms of science, sport and arts, to name just a few), have highlighted over the years that the more successful works tend to have an artistic visionary behind them, one who elevates the work towards a more enjoyable experience. The director, if they are artistically minded and are given the freedom to exploit their talent, becomes the force that can translate any material into possibly a work of art. For some, Sallie Gardner at a Gallop is just some footage of a horse running on track field. Others, as in the case of this reviewer, see it as an important milestone towards the development of film as an art-form.

[1] Bach, Steven. Final Cut: Dreams and Disaster in the Making of Heaven's Gate; p. 7. New York: William Morrow & Co, 1985.

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