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In the 1880s and 1890s, improvements in photographic processes enabled manufacturers to produce small, handheld cameras that did not need to be mounted on tripods. Faster film and shutter speeds also allowed practitioners to capture rapidly moving objects. Stieglitz was one of the first fine art photographers to exploit the aesthetic potential of these new cameras and films. Around the turn of the century, he made many photographs of rapidly moving trains, horse-drawn carriages, and racetracks that capture the pace of the increasingly modern city.

Alfred Stieglitz, Going to the Post, Morris Park, 1904, photogravure, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Alfred Stieglitz Collection 1949.3.280

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As soon as Talbot announced his invention of photography in 1839, he realized that its ability to freeze time enabled him to present the visual spectacle of the world in an entirely new way. By capturing something as mundane as a fleeting moment on a busy street, he could transform life into art, creating a picture that could be savored long after the event had transpired.

William Henry Fox Talbot, The Boulevards of Paris, 1843, salted paper print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, New Century Fund 1997.97.4

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In 1843, only four years after Talbot announced his negative/positive process of photography, painter David Octavius Hill teamed up with engineer Robert Adamson. Working in Scotland, they created important early portraits of the local populace and photographed Scottish architecture, rustic landscapes, and city scenes. Today a suburb southwest of Edinburgh, 19th-century Colinton was a mill town beside a river known as the Water of Leith. Because of the long exposure time required to make this photograph, the water rushing over a small dam appears as a glassy blur.

David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, Colinton Manse and weir, with part of the old mill on the right, 1846, salted paper print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Paul Mellon Fund 2007.29.26

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Although many photographers would agree with the British painter John Constable that clouds were “the chief organ of sentiment” in landscape art, they proved to be a challenge for 19th-century practitioners. Early photographic emulsions were not equally sensitive to all parts of the light spectrum, and thus a negative that was properly exposed for the landscape left the sky overexposed and splotchy. Some photographers avoided the problem by painting out the sky on their negatives, rendering it entirely blank; others exposed two negatives, one each for the sky and land, which they printed together. Wortley, who won great acclaim for his atmospheric pictures of billowing clouds, solved the problem by correctly exposing his plate for the sky, allowing the ocean in the foreground to appear as a dark, mysterious mass. Even with these technical limitations, he was able to freeze the motion of the waves breaking on the shore.

Colonel Stuart Wortley, A Strong Breeze, Flying Clouds, c. 1863, albumen print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation through Robert and Joyce Menschel 2007.10.1

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In 1868, Glasgow’s City Improvements Trust hired Annan to photograph the “old closes and streets of Glasgow” before the city’s tenements were demolished. Annan’s pictures constitute one of the first commissioned photographic records of living conditions in urban slums. The collodion process Annan used to make his large, glass negatives required a long exposure time. In the dim light of this narrow passage, it was impossible for the photographer to stop the motion of the restless children, who appear as ghostly blurs moving barefoot across the cobblestones.

Thomas Annan, Old Vennel, Off High Street, 1868–1871, carbon print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Patrons’ Permanent Fund 1995.36.1

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In order to analyze the movement of racehorses, farm animals, and acrobats, Muybridge pioneered new and innovative ways to stop motion with photography. In 1878, he started making pictures at railroad magnate Leland Stanford’s horse farm in Palo Alto, California, where he developed an electronic shutter that enabled exposures as fast as one-thousandth of a second. In this print from Muybridge’s 1881 album The Attitudes of Animals in Motion, Stanford’s prized racehorse Phryne L is shown running in a sequential grid of pictures made by 24 different cameras with electromagnetic shutters tripped by wires as the animal ran across the track. These pictures are now considered a critical step in the development of cinema.

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

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This glass negative shows the sequence of Leland Stanford’s horse Abe Edgington trotting across a racetrack in Palo Alto, California—a revolutionary record of the changes in the horse’s gait in about one second. Muybridge composed the negative from photographs made by eight different cameras lined up to capture the horse’s movements. Used to print the whole sequence together onto albumen paper, this internegative served as an intermediary step in the production of Muybridge’s 1881 album The Attitudes of Animals in Motion.

Eadweard Muybridge, Internegative for Horses. Trotting. Abe Edgington. No. 28, from The Attitudes of Animals in Motion, 1878, collodion negative on glass, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Mary and Dan Solomon and Patrons’ Permanent Fund 2006.133.105

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A scientist and physiologist, Marey became fascinated with movement in the 1870s. Unlike Muybridge, who had already made separate pictures of animals in motion, Marey developed in 1882 a means to record several phases of movement onto one photographic plate using a rotating shutter with slots cut into it. He called this process “chronophotography,” meaning photography of time. His photographs, which he published in books and showed in lantern slide presentations, influenced 20th-century cubist, futurist, and Dada artists who examined the interdependence of time and space.

Étienne-Jules Marey, Chronophotograph of a Man on a Bicycle, c. 1885–1890, glass lantern slide, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Mary and David Robinson 2002.116.1

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Eadweard Muybridge, Plate Number 188. Dancing (fancy), 1887, collotype, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (Museum Purchase, 1887) 2014.79.231

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A graphic artist, Russian-born Brodovitch moved to the United States from Paris in 1930. Known for his innovative use of photographs, illustrations, and type on the printed page, he became art director for Harper’s Bazaar in 1934, and photographed the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo during their American tours from 1935 to 1939. Using a small-format, 35 mm camera, Brodovitch worked in the backstage shadows and glaring light of the theater to produce a series of rough, grainy pictures that convey the drama and action of the performance. This photograph employs figures in motion, a narrow field of focus, and high-contrast effects to express the stylized movements of Léonide Massine’s 1938 choreography for Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.

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

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Sasha Stone, Acrobat, c. 1930, gelatin silver print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (Museum Purchase, Brenda and Robert Edelson Collection) 2015.19.4590 

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A professor of electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Edgerton in the early 1930s perfected the stroboscope, a tube filled with gas that produced high-intensity bursts of light at regular and very brief intervals. He used it to illuminate objects in motion so that they could be captured by a camera. At first he was hired by industrial clients to reveal flaws in their production of materials, but by the mid-1930s he began to photograph everyday events, such as someone swinging a squash racket. Edgerton captured phenomena moving too fast for the naked eye to see, and revealed the beauty of people and objects in motion.

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

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Harold Eugene Edgerton, Wes Fesler Kicking a Football, 1934, gelatin silver print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (Museum Purchase with funds from the National Endowment for the Arts, Washington, DC, a federal agency, and the Polaroid Corporation) 2015.19.4183

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From 1956 to 1961, Mayne photographed London’s North Kensington neighborhood to record its emergence from the devastation and poverty caused by World War II. This dramatic photograph of a young goalie lunging for the ball during an after-school soccer game relies on the camera’s ability to freeze the fast-paced and unpredictable action. Because the boy’s daring lunge is forever suspended in time, we will never know its outcome. 

Roger Mayne, Goalie, Street Football, Brindley Road, 1956, gelatin silver print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Patrons’ Permanent Fund 2001.67.142

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Using a slow shutter speed, Keetman depicts movement as a blur to evoke the tension between the private realm of a stationary man and the commotion of the city that engulfs him. Keetman studied photography in Munich following World War II and was a founding member of Fotoform, an influential group of experimental German photographers. In the spirit of the legendary Bauhaus school—closed by the Nazis in 1933—Fotoform advocated an avant-garde, abstract style they called “subjective photography” that prioritized creative expression over realism.

Peter Keetman, Traffic, 1953, gelatin silver print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Joshua P. Smith Collection 2001.128.39

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Gare Saint-Lazare is one of the principal railway stations in Paris. Because of its industrial appearance, steaming locomotives, and teeming crowds, it was a frequent subject for 19th-century French painters—including Claude Monet, Édouard Manet, and Gustave Caillebotte—who used it to express the vitality of modern life. 20th-century artists such as Horvat also depicted it to address the pace and anonymity that defined their time. Using a telephoto lens and long exposure, he captured the rushing movement of travelers scattered beneath giant destination signs.  

Frank Horvat, Paris—Gare Saint-Lazare, 1959, gelatin silver print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Patrons’ Permanent Fund 2001.67.105

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Best known for his expressive documentation of World War II’s impact on Japanese culture, Tomatsu was one of Japan’s most creative and influential photographers. Starting in the early 1960s, he documented the country’s dramatic economic, political, and cultural transformation. This photograph—a long exposure made with his camera mounted on a tripod—conveys the chaotic rush of commuters on their way through downtown Tokyo. Tomatsu used this graphic description of movement, which distorts the faceless bodies of commuters dashing down a flight of stairs, to symbolize the dehumanizing nature of work in the fast-paced city of the early 1980s.

Shomei Tomatsu, Rush Hour, Tokyo, 1981, gelatin silver print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (Gift of Michael D. Abrams) 2015.19.5234

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Endowed with the enthusiasm of an amateur and the vision of an artist, Callahan was one of the most innovative photographers of the 20th century. Throughout his long career, he was intrigued by the movement of people and things through the urban environment. Soon after he began to photograph in the early 1940s, he realized that if he moved his small, handheld camera during a long exposure, he could quite literally draw with light. He made this photograph and the work represented in the next slide using newly invented color slide film. 

Harry Callahan, Detroit, c. 1943, dye imbibition print, printed c. 1980, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of the Callahan Family 2011.95.40

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Harry Callahan, Camera Movement on Neon Lights at Night, 1946, dye imbibition print, printed 1979, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (Gift of Richard W. and Susan R. Gessner) 2015.19.4192

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Jerome Liebling, Málaga, Spain, 1966, gelatin silver print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (Gift of Sandra and David Berler, in honor of the Women’s Committee of the Corcoran Gallery of Art) 2015.19.4564

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Louis Stettner, Times Square, New York City, 1952–1954, gelatin silver print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Patrons’ Permanent Fund 2001.67.208

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