It Started with Muybridge (1964)

Produced by the U.S. Naval Ordnance Laboratory in 1964, It Started with Muybridge begins with a voiceover proclaiming the center’s mission: “research and development for tomorrow’s weapons”. The future’s bombs, this training film claims, will be detonated atop the shoulders of yesterday’s “photographer extraordinary”, Eadweard Muybridge. His famous sequential studies of animal movement innovated photography as a tool for motion analysis — the field that excites these ordnance laboratorians most. On screen we watch timelapse experiments with floral blooms and crystal growth set to whimsical flute music before the film smoothly cuts to instruments of human annihilation. The visual transition is itself an object lesson in the power of sequential images. “The elaborate equipment of today, adapted to a variety of special purposes, finds many uses outside of scientific research”, intones the narrator, as a driver makes contact with a golf ball in slow motion, and a composited woman skips in lingerie to demonstrate “how well a certain article of clothing will stay with the wearer”. Lulled, as we are, by imagery of leisure and a familiar scopophilic gaze, when aerial bombers arrive on screen, they appear almost beautiful: their parachute mines descending like synchronized divers to sow the sea. The documentary proceeds to recount the Naval Ordnance Laboratory’s contributions to scientific photography, containing “dimensions that Muybridge could not have foreseen”, and explain the use of various instruments that calibrate, synchronize, and sequence cameras for recording the flight of ballistic missiles.

While this film makes a military forefather of Muybridge, his photography and inventions were crosscut with warfare in other ways during his lifetime. Étienne-Jules Marey — whose La Machine animale (1873) inspired the hippophilic industrialist Leland Stanford to commission Muybridge’s famous equine photographs — repurposed the Gatling gun into a chronophotographic rifle on the heels of Muybridge’s research. And as a pioneering war photographer, Muybridge manipulated the candid form toward affecting fictions. His stereographs of the Modoc War (1872–1873), for example, were financed by the United States Army — one particularly famous image, captioned A Modoc Brave on the War Path, shows a crouched and shirtless marksman, with sights aimed on a target beyond the frame. In truth, writes Jarrod Hore, “the few photographs claiming to depict Modoc warriors were shams — the subjects were friendly scouts framed as rebels”. This wartime propaganda was, in effect, a weapon itself, creating complex visual “pathos formulas”, in John Trafton’s words, and garnering public support for expansionism and forced resettlement. Turned into engravings for Harper’s Weekly, Muybridge’s stereographs inadvertently documented U.S. imperialism’s role in wider trajectories of history. “Muybridge was photographing the journey to modernization”, recounts Rebecca Solnit in River of Shadows. “His Modoc pictures are not great expressive works of art; what is important in them is his act of witness and how it connects this history to the other histories he was tied to: the transformation of a world of presences into a world of images”.

It Started with Muybridge ends on an image so banal it winks sinisterly. After a ten-minute exposition of military pulse generators, timing units, spark gaps, shadowgraphs, and the “phenomena” of explosive detonations, we conclude with horses. Muybridge’s observation that all four galloping hooves are off the ground at the same time “has been a boon to artists, horse trainers, and veterinarians, and photography has been solving tough problems ever since”. When we remember that this documentary was released on the eve of Operation Rolling Thunder — the U.S. Navy and Air Force’s three-year campaign of aerial bombardment against North Vietnam — these “tough problems” may come into greater focus.