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Movement

Horses. Running. Phryne L. No. 40, from The Attitudes of Animals in Motion, 1879

Eadweard Muybridge, Horses. Running. Phryne L. No. 40, from The Attitudes of Animals in Motion, 1879, albumen print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Mary and Dan Solomon 2006.131.7

From the moment photography was first announced in 1839, people were entranced by its ability to stop time and motion. Yet initially slow film and shutter speeds, from a half-second to several seconds, meant that a moving person or object appeared in pictures as a blur, if at all. In the 1870s, Eadweard Muybridge, using faster negatives and newly invented electronic shutters, began a series of groundbreaking experiments to freeze time and motion. Using banks of cameras, each one recording a discrete part of an action, he analyzed sequential movements too fast for the eye and mind to grasp accurately. His work revolutionized the understanding of animal locomotion and laid the foundation for the invention of motion pictures.

Squash Stroke, 1938

Harold Eugene Edgerton, Squash Stroke, 1938, gelatin silver print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of the Harold and Esther Edgerton Family Foundation 1996.146.4

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, other photographers sought to arrest motion for scientific investigations into how and why things move the way they do. Working in France at approximately the same time as Muybridge, the physiologist Étienne Jules Marey (French, 1830 - 1904) invented a camera that not only stopped movement but also charted it in a single picture. In the 1930s, Harold Eugene Edgerton (American, 1903 - 1990), an American photographer and professor of electrical engineering, perfected a strobe light that allowed him to freeze a single, often dramatic, instant of time.

Untitled, from “Ballet” series, 1938

Alexey Brodovitch, Untitled, from “Ballet” series, 1938, gelatin silver print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Diana and Mallory Walker Fund 2006.71.1

Many other photographers have instead used movement as an important aesthetic tool, recognizing that speed, motion, and new concepts of time are central conditions of modern life. Some arrested motion to infuse their pictures with a sense of a specific time and place. The 1860s British photographer Colonel Stuart Wortley (British, 1832 - 1890), for example, stopped the movement of waves lapping the shore, while, at the turn of the century, Alfred Stieglitz froze racehorses in action. Later, 20th-century photographers, such as Alexey Brodovitch (American, born Russia, 1898 - 1971) and Peter Keetman (German, 1916 - 1987), used blur and movement to reveal the grace of dance or the pace of the city.