“The Photographer” — Opera on Eadweard Muybridge, Murderer and Pioneer of Motion Picture Cameras

Eadweard Muybridge -- murderer, photographer, motion picture pioneer
Eadweard Muybridge — murderer, photographer, motion picture pioneer
It’s not all mainstream what you read on THEME. The field of photography is far and wide, and this post refers to another rather unusual evidence that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Ever heard of a photographer named Eadweard Muybridge? Not? No wonder. Muybridge, of California, discovered in 1874 that his wife had a lover. He shot and killed the fancier, was put on trial and acquitted on the grounds that it was “justifiable homicide.” Which inspired composer Philip Glass to write the chamber opera The Photographer, based on the homicide trial and words drawn from the trial as well as Muybridge’s letters to his wife.

Since we’re talking photography on THEME, here’s what interests us: in the early 1870s Muybridge developed a scheme for instantaneous picture capture. His technology involved prescriptive chemical bath formulas and an electrical trigger.

In July 1878, Muybridge successfully photographed a horse at a gallop using a series of fifty cameras. Each of the cameras was arranged along a track parallel to the horse’s, and each of the camera shutters were controlled by trip wires which were triggered by the horse’s hooves. This series of photos, taken at Stanford’s Palo Alto Stock Farm, is called The Horse in Motion, and shows that, indeed, the feet all leave the ground.

Eadweard Muybridge's famous The Horse in Motion
Eadweard Muybridge’s famous The Horse in Motion

Muybridge’s sponsor, Californian racehorse owner Leland Stanford, laid a wager on the contentious issue of whether a galloping horse was ever airborne. Muybridge proved: it was! By projecting the pictures in rapid succession to reproduce the horse’s motion, Muybridge laid the groundwork for the development of motion pictures cameras, and hence the entire cinematic industry. Muybridge produced, in fact, the first film ever!

Later on, after his acquittal, Muybridge left the U.S. for a lengthy planned photography expedition to Central America, where he particularly worked in Guatemala. Composer Glass, however, wasn’t the least bit interested in the explorer and photographer Muybridge. It’s about the personal melodrama.

Glass’ opera is a piece of abstract, repetitive music. Spherical and meditative, it reminds of the composer’s most famous work, the film music to Koyaanisqatsi.

Now here’s the mystically compelling The Photographer, a peculiar piece of chamber opera, gently assaulting one’s mind and ears:

You can purchase The Photographer — performed by Paul Zukofsky and the Philip Glass Ensemble — from Amazon.