Moving Beyond Vision: Eadweard Muybridge in Philadelphia

Emily Holladay Handlin Department of History of Art and Architecture Brown University 2013-2014 Research Fellow

In 1884 Eadweard Muybridge arrived at the University of Pennsylvania to begin, as he described it, “a new and elaborate work upon the attitudes of man, the horse and other animals in motion.” For the next three years Muybridge obsessively photographed bipeds and quadrupeds of every variety. The results were published in 1887 under the title Animal Locomotion. Comprised of 781 collotype plates and representing nearly 300 discrete motions, Animal Locomotion was hailed as a revolutionary contribution to both the arts and sciences, and is now considered a landmark in the history of photography. My dissertation, “Moving Beyond Vision: Eadweard Muybridge in Philadelphia,” relates Muybridge’s motion studies to the shared concerns and practices of the knowledge community in and around the University of Pennsylvania. I argue that the members of the “Muybridge Commission” influenced the direction and objects of his investigations and addressed the very same epistemological questions raised by Muybridge’s project in their own practices. Muybridge’s photographs picture phases of motion unseen by the naked eye. They thus raised doubts about the viability of empirical knowledge, or knowledge based on perceptual experience. In the 1880s the artists and scientists who collaborated with Muybridge were also exploring these relationships between perception, the mind, and visual technologies—in particular, the camera. My dissertation thus contributes to the literature on Muybridge’s motion studies by expanding the frame and exploring the conditions of possibility—the network of technologies, texts, ideas and practices—that shaped the execution and reception of Animal Locomotion. In doing so, it reassesses how nineteenth-century users and viewers of photographs negotiated the limits and identity of the medium. Through the generous support of PACHS, I was able to spend extended periods of time in two Philadelphia-area institutions: The University of Pennsylvania and the College of Physicians. Both the UPenn Archives and Records Center and the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library house a wealth of information related to Muybridge and the motion studies project. Letters written by and about Muybridge, as well as other documents concerning the photographic investigations and the publication of Animal Locomotion, provided critical insight into the relationship between Muybridge and the University. Moreover, the UPenn archives contained more material than I could have hoped for about the many doctors and scientists working within Muybridge’s circle. While the records of the University Provost, Dr. William Pepper, provided invaluable information about the University’s institutional reorientation towards the sciences in the 1880s, several departmental archives included much-needed specifics about the researches of specific University Faculty members. These researches sometimes lead to unexpected places. In particular, I became fascinated with the Records of the Seybert Commission for Investigating Modern Spiritualism, which is housed in the Van Pelt Library. Sponsored by the University and carried out during Muybridge’s tenure there, the Commission included several scientists who also collaborated with Muybridge. In its 1887 report, the Commission emphasizes that its conclusions were based wholly on facts derived from the repeated and unbiased observation of spiritual phenomena. Yet, in their private correspondence, Commission members frequently expressed reservations about the limits and viability of their own methods. In particular, they disagree over whether spirit photography and psychography, or writing produced by spirits, should be considered proof of the existence of an invisible spiritual presence. The Seybert Commission therefore addressed many of the same problems raised by the motion studies, including how to evaluate evidence of phenomena below the threshold of vision, whether the untrained or uninitiated had the right to judge the authenticity of these images, and how to define the parameters of a “scientific” investigation. The manuscripts, photographs and full runs of rare journals that I was able to access in the Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians also profoundly shaped the direction of my dissertation, in particular a chapter devoted to Muybridge’s photographs of “abnormal locomotion.” The College’s unparalleled collection of nineteenth-century medical journals allowed me to trace the evolution of photographic conventions for representing movement disorders and to place Muybridge’s studies within this larger visual history. I was also excited to see two collections related to physicians who had assisted Muybridge and contributed patients to his pathological motion studies: before-and-after photographs of patients who had undergone Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell’s infamous “rest cure” for neurasthenia and “Camp Life in the Rockies,” an album of photographs taken by a neurologist who pioneered new treatments for male neurasthenics. In combination with the Silas Weir Mitchell Papers and the reports of the Philadelphia Neurological Society, these images have convinced me that Muybridge’s photographs of “normal locomotion” should be situated within a larger photographic discourse of neurasthenia. The research made possible by the PACHS fellowship changed my dissertation for the better. The archival materials I studied added breadth and depth to my understanding of Muybridge, the University of Pennsylvania, and the community of artists and scientists he worked within. However, I also encountered primary sources that forced me to rethink or refocus entire chapters. I am grateful to all of the amazing librarians who answered endless questions and pointed me to overlooked sources, as well as the PACHS community.

Emily Handlin