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All words and photos by Francis Chung.

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Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change opens at the Corcoran Gallery of Art on Saturday, providing a comprehensive overview of one of early photography’s most important and influential careers. Featuring more than 300 works and artifacts created between 1857 and 1893, the exhibition situates Muybridge’s protean work within the dynamic social and historical context of the later nineteenth century, positioning him as a pivotal agent in photography’s emergence as perhaps the quintessential visual medium of modernity.

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While it doesn’t break any entirely new scholarly ground on Muybridge’s already well-studied oeuvre, the Corcoran show effectively conveys the considerable breadth of the photographer’s output, with ample attention paid to his less-renowned early efforts.  A British-born immigrant to the United States, Muybridge started out as a landscape photographer in the American West, for a time publishing his work under the pseudonym “Helios.”  The pantheistic connotations of this moniker underscore the Romantic tendencies of the dramatic, sometimes stunningly beautiful images Muybridge captured at locations such as Yosemite Valley, Alaska, and the Pacific coastline.  In works like Falls of the Yosemite. From Glacier Rock (Great Grizzly Bear) (1872), Muybridge adapted prevailing tropes and conventions of landscape painting to the newer medium of photography, using the wet collodion process to produce strikingly detailed prints in which mountains, cliffs, and waterfalls dwarf and tower over the people gazing contemplatively upon their sublime grandeur.  Viewing these works at the Corcoran, one surmises that Muybride’s nostalgic sense of awe and respect for nature may have been heightened by his concurrent view on the inexorable onrush of modernity.  In the 1870s, Muybridge documented the development of Central America, as well as America’s relentless industrialization and westward expansion, and his spectacular 360-degree panoramas of “the great whirling, driving, bustling city” of San Francisco stand as apt dialectical counterpoints to his landscapes, displaying the same vividness and keen sense of scale, as if to tout photography’s ability to encompass any vista, be it natural or man-made.

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Portraying Muybridge as a man who changed with his times, the Corcoran exhibition tracks the evolution of his work as he transitioned from his initial Romanticism to his later preoccupation with the scientific potentialities of photographic imagery and technology.  In addition to his early experiments with stereographs and panoramas, Muybridge was commissioned by Leland Stanford (the founder of Stanford University) in the 1870s to develop techniques and mechanisms for stop-motion photography as a means of studying the biomechanics of animal movement.  Eventually, Muybridge designed a system of multiple cameras with synchronized shutters which enabled the visual capture of sequential moments of high-speed action.  The resulting photographs are those for which Muybridge is best known, and an impressive selection is on view at the Corcoran, from the initial studies of Stanford’s racehorses, to subsequent work on other animals such as oxen, pigs, and dogs, culminating in the investigations of human motion and behavior that are the most fascinating – and most bizarre – images in the exhibition.

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Included in Muybridge’s albums The Attitudes of Animals in Motion (1881) and Animal Locomotion (1887) are numerous photographic sequences of men, women, and children performing a wide range of staged movements, with the types of activity and the manners in which they are depicted raising interesting questions as to if and how they reflect nineteenth-century attitudes toward gender and sexuality, or Muybridge’s perhaps idiosyncratic expression thereof.  Men are typically depicted engaging – often classically nude – in athletic, vigorous acts such as wrestling, boxing, or hammering an anvil.  The photographs have a decidedly homoerotic edge to them, as metaphorically crystallized in a series that features a pair of all-but-naked fencers spiritedly thrusting their sabers at each other.  Women are occasionally shown in athletic motion, but more often tend to be captured in the midst of more demure, domesticated activities such as getting into bed, emptying a bucket of water, or receiving a bouquet from a child.  They, like the men, are often nude, but less exuberantly so, as emblemized in an almost startling series depicting an unclad woman awkwardly covering her face and groin as she turns away from the cameras.  Although these pictures virtually cry out for theoretical interpretation, the Corcoran has laudably refrained from plastering the surrounding walls with quotes from poststructuralist critical theory or Lacanian psychoanalysis, leaving viewers to draw their own conclusions about these strange, showstopping images.

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At the end of exhibition, the Corcoran presents an “Inspiration Gallery” which examines Muybridge’s impact on contemporary art and culture, featuring photo-based artworks by Sarah Charlesworth, William Christenberry, and Ed Ruscha, along with an interactive installation by Mitchell F. Chan and Brad Hindson that seems likely to be a crowd-pleaser.  Entitled A Dream of Pastures, Chan and Hindson’s piece is comprised of flickering light-and-shadow images of galloping horses, the speed of which is controlled by a gallery visitor pedaling a stationary bicycle.  Evoking not only Muybridge’s animal locomotion studies, but also his development of proto-cinematic apparatuses such as the Zoopraxiscope which is also on display at the museum, the installation provides a fitting coda to a fine exhibition that productively illuminates the life and legacy of one of photography’s singular figures.

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Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change is on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art from April 10 to July 18, 2010.

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