Creative Economy & Cultures of Production, Memory & Heritage

Busy bodies: the afterlives of photographic motion studies in contemporary visual culture

Dr Sara Callahan

It is sometimes said that more images are now produced every minute than were made during the entire nineteenth century. Although I can’t vouch for the veracity of this statement, it is clear that contemporary culture is characterised by the production, reproduction and circulation of images and that many images that originated in the nineteenth century are still around today, albeit in new forms. My current research considers how the reuse, appropriation and references to historical photographs can be understood. I focus on the reuse of a specific set of historical images: photographic motion studies originally made in the period stretching roughly from the 1870s to the 1920s. Most well-known perhaps are images by Eadweard Muybridge, but Étienne-Jules Marey, Ottomar Anschütz, Albert Londe, Frank and Lillian Gilbreth and many, many others used photography (and later film) to depict and study humans and animals in motion during this period.

Eadweard Muybridge, Animal Locomotion Plate 626, ©1887 Eadweard Muybridge.
Public domain image, from National Gallery of Art, Washington

From the perspective of image studies, an image is never a singular object but is part of what Sunil Manghani has described as interconnected and overlapping families, societies and ecologies. Such metaphors suggest that an image is embedded in various histories and interpretative structures; that it is related to other images, image practices, texts and contexts. Although many such relationships are sustained over time, many historical images also have what Red Chidgey in a different context has described as a kind of restlessness, that they simply refuse to settle down. When frequently referenced historical photographs like Eadweard Muybridge’s horse-in-motion series recur in present-day visual culture, reverberations of their history, previous interpretations and associations are often actively exploited, challenged or reinforced within the new context in which they occur. Let us briefly look at two very different uses of the same set of images to clarify this process.

Poster for the movie Nope, at Kino Central in Berlin, August 2022. Photographed by the author.

Jordan Peele’s Sci-Fi/Western/Horror movie Nope (2022) makes very deliberate use of the suggestive potential of Muybridge’s motion studies. The film­ is set at a present-day family ranch just outside Hollywood touted as “the only black-owned horse trainers in Hollywood”. The ranch is run by the descendants of Alistair E. Haywood, a fictional African-American jockey and horse trainer said to have worked with Muybridge in California in the 1870s. Although Eadweard Muybridge never made movies, he is frequently referred to as the “father of motion pictures,” in part because his zoopraxiscope projections animated images based on photographs but also because his sequential photographs somehow look cinematic to those already familiar with the medium. This effect is reinforced by the vertical arrangement of the sequence in one of the posters promoting Nope. The film’s main protagonists are siblings OJ and Em Haywood who have taken over the family business raising and training horses to be used in Hollywood movies. “Since the moment pictures could move, we had skin in the game”, Em explains, standing in front of a green screen in a film studio as she makes a pitch to a film production team.

Still from Nope (2022) directed by Jordan Peele. ©Universal Studios

The plot centres around a mysterious and dangerous UFO-like object and the effort by the Haywood siblings to catch it on film—they are convinced that such a spectacular image could raise enough money to save their ranch. Muybridge’s images and their back story have a brief but symbolically important presence in the Nope. They function as a kind of shortcut to issues of race, the power of the gaze, and the effects of contemporary culture of spectacle. Reference to the Muybridge images effectively brings to light a whitewashing of history—entertainment history specifically—since no one remembers the black jockey who is said to have made Muybridge’s experiments possible, while Muybridge is legendary and many of the horses he photographed are known by name. The financial struggles of the Haywood farm bear witness to the structural racism still at work in a film industry old Haywood himself helped establish. The way Nope plays with the Western film genre also brings to light such racial structures, not only the overwhelming whiteness of traditional cowboy characters but also the way these films tend to centre around the arrival of an unwelcome outsider. Ultimately Nope is all about seeing and being seen: the strange nebulous flying object devours those who dare to look directly at it. The power and danger of the gaze are sensed by animals who react with fear or aggression at eye contact (a horse and a chimpanzee), but also implicitly evokes issues raised in other contexts by activist groups like Black Lives Matter who point out the danger for black men catching the eye of the wrong police officer, for instance. When references to the story of Muybridge and his by now iconic images are activated in Nope, they are used to make visible deep and complex ties between looking, cinema, spectacle, mass media and the long history of African American subjugation.

Seth Shipman, GIF illustrating the result of the experiment accounted for in “CRISPR–Cas encoding of a digital movie into the genomes of a population of living bacteria” by Shipman, Nivala, Macklis and Church, Nature, Vol. 547, July 12, 2017, p. 345-349.
Image © Seth Shipman https://www.shipmanlab.org/research

My next example makes different use of the same set of images, and here it is far from clear that the suggestive potential of Muybridge’s motion studies was the reason for using them. In the summer of 2017 researchers at Harvard Medical School announced that they had succeeded in using the genomes of a population of living E.coli bacteria as a medium for archiving a short black and white digital film. To test their thesis the researchers used a low resolution, pixelated digital animation of a galloping horse, very similar to the still images featured on the Nope poster. In terms of the result and execution of the Harvard experiment, the motif or origin of the animation was unimportant, any sequence of images that could be read even when rendered imperfectly would have worked equally well. From the perspective of image studies, however, the fact that this particular image set was used is interesting. First of all, Muybridge’s images are anchored in a rhetoric and aesthetics of science and experimentation. The well-documented account of how the photographs came about after months of technical innovation and trial-and-error experiments as well as Muybridge’s eccentric personality all feed into the trope of against-the-odds discovery and the singular focus of the scientist/inventor. Furthermore, what the 2017 experiment was all about—using DNA to store and transmit data—signalled, potentially at least, the beginning of a new type of medium. By using Muybridge’s photographic motion studies, the Harvard experiment is effectively tied to a history of innovation and a projective idea of a medium not-yet-invented. Not only is Muybridge frequently described as laying the ground for moving pictures, but within media theory the point is often made that nineteen-century mechanical devices like the zoopraxiscope also foreshadowed the digital GIF technology since both create a flickering short loop animation from a limited set of sequential still images.  By using images that are saturated with these kinds of associations to media history and innovation the Harvard experiment becomes effectively tied to this history as well.

I discuss the 2015 Harvard experiment in some more detail along with a tattoo project and a Greta Thunberg /George Monbiot activist video in the article “Please Take it and Reuse it” published in Media Theory later this year. My project is financed by the Swedish Research Council and the idea is that it will result in a book discussing various references to motion studies, including but not limited to those produced by Muybridge. I am thrilled to visit CMCI as part of a research stay in London since the department brings together researchers from a number of different fields who share my interest in the intricate relationship between images, memory and contemporary culture.