Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Lillian Schwartz and Eadweard Muybridge: Pioneers of Motion

August 16, 2023 Archive Insight

In June 1878, Eadweard Muybridge was hard at work. At the Palo Alto Stock Farm in Stanford, California, the photographer positioned 12 cameras along the side of a racetrack. A wire trailed away from each camera, connected to an electromagnetic circuit. Muybridge was meticulous; he wanted the experiment to work. Leland Stanford, once governor of California, commissioned Muybridge to answer a pressing question: When a horse ran, did all four hooves ever leave the ground?

It was a contentious topic among horse-racing enthusiasts, and Muybridge believed he could settle the matter using one of Stanford’s horses. Loosing the horse onto the racetrack, as the animal careened around, it tripped the camera wires. Twelve tiny negatives were the result, capturing the full motion sequence. When Muybridge developed the images, they confirmed that when the horse gathered its legs beneath it, all four hooves left the ground.

Photographs from Muybridge’s series The Horse in Motion

Photographs from Muybridge’s series "The Horse in Motion." / Via Wikimedia Commons

Muybridge refined this pioneering technique to study motion in other animals and humans. Working with the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, he photographed men and women engaged in a variety of activities. These images let Muybridge analyze how the body moved and how cameras could capture motion.

The 1887 publication of Muybridge’s heavily illustrated Animal Locomotion portfolio ignited mutual interest and inspiration among early innovators of sequential images — from Thomas Edison’s motion picture devices to Frank Gilbreth’s motion studies of factory workers. Muybridge's work inspired his contemporaries but also had a longer-lasting effect.

Kinetograph Motion-Picture Camera, 1894

Thomas Edison’s Motion-Picture Camera, 1894. Edison called this device a Kinetograph. Unlike Muybridge, who used multiple cameras, Edison captured motion with a single camera. / THF996

Edison Kinetoscope Peepshow, circa 1894

Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope “Peepshow,” circa 1894. After capturing motion on his Kinetograph, Edison’s film could be seen through this viewer, called a Kinetoscope. / THF156534

Edison Kinetoscope Film, "The Butterfly Dance," 1894-1895

Edison Kinetoscope Film, “The Butterfly Dance,” 1894-1895. Individual frames from Edison’s Kinetoscope reveal sequential images much like Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies. / THF3677

Almost 100 years after Muybridge’s studies, in Murray Hill, New Jersey, an artist was hard at work. Lillian Schwartz, a "resident visitor" at Bell Laboratories, was working on what would become the first of her groundbreaking computer films. Schwartz's early artwork — including paintings, prints and sculptures — had found interesting ways to interrogate motion. But how (given her access to the powerful computers at Bell Laboratories) could she use these technologies to create a sense of motion using pixels? In 1970, Schwartz’s film Pixillation combined a variety of techniques to explore organic and digital motion, shapes, and colors, pushing her practice one step closer to experiments in motion studies.

A year later, Schwartz created Olympiad.

Schwartz began with a human figure. She examined Muybridge's studies to determine where motion originated in the body, targeting 16 joints to develop a computer hierarchy — a structure she would use to control movement. Then she used the computer program EXPLOR, developed by Kenneth Knowlton, to layer a series of octagons into the shape of a man. The computer hierarchy generated motion by changing the size and position of the octagons between frames.

Now Schwartz's man could take off running. A two-and-a-half-minute film, Olympiad, repeats the same motion sequence as athletes dart across the screen. By introducing an editing device called an optical bench into the process, Schwartz could send her athletes in different directions. They move left and right, backward and forward, at different speeds, in different colors, sometimes overlapping.

Lillian Schwartz’s 1971 film Olympiad. / THF500603 

Even after the film was complete, Schwartz wasn't through experimenting with Olympiad’s imagery. She took "freeze frames" from the film and created several prints of her running man. One of these frames became a mixed-media collage. She arranged strips of audio tape, metal thumbtacks and printed computer programs to create a sense of depth and momentum, translating the motion seen in Olympiad back into static materials.

CJ Martonchik is a 2023 Simmons Graduate Intern at The Henry Ford.