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Tate Britain’s new exhibition of 19th Century photographs by Eadweard Muybridge left me thinking not just about the power of his images (which laid the foundations for cinema) but also about Muybridge’s strange personality.
Among prints of the American wilderness, stunning panoramas of early San Francisco, and pioneering stop-frame photos of animals and people in motion, there are portraits of Muybridge staring out with a severe expression from behind his wiry facial hair, and slumped moodily against a giant redwood tree.
It must have taken an obsessive personality to venture out into the wilderness and set up darkrooms in caves and mountain tops (he had to process the photos immediately after taking them in those days). Muybridge was also a canny self-promoter, changing his name various times. The spelling “Eadweard” was inspired by a Saxon King.
But halfway through the exhibition a shocking fact about his identity comes to light: he was a murderer. In 1874, on discovering that his son was not in fact his own, he killed his wife’s lover, Harry Larkyns. The following year he was tried but acquitted on the basis that the killing was “justifiable”.
If he had been jailed for the crime, none of his most amazing, groundbreaking works would be sitting in the Tate today, but you can’t help but get a sinister feeling when you look into his eyes.
Eadweard Muybridge at Tate Britain until 16th January 2011. Entry £10, concessions £8.50