Capturing the Moment

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By the 1860s, Eadweard Muybridge, born Edward James Muggeridge in Kingston-upon-Thames, England, had reinvented himself as Helios, one of San Francisco’s most important landscape photographers. His fame brought him to the attention of Leland Stanford, former governor of California, who hired Muybridge to get a picture that would settle a hotly debated issue: Is there a moment in a horse’s gait when all four hooves are off the ground at once? Muybridge took up the challenge in 1872. In 1878, he succeeded in taking a sequence of photographs with 12 cameras that captured the moment when the animal’s hooves were tucked under its belly. Publication of these photographs made Muybridge an international celebrity.

  image- Portrait of Eadweard Muybridge, about 1890 Enlarge image
Portrait of Eadweard Muybridge, about 1890
Frances Benjamin Johnston (attrib.)


Muybridge’s five-month trip to the Yosemite Valley in 1867 yielded 260 published views, 160 of them stereographs. His were among the most celebrated images taken of the Valley. By the late 1860s, the widespread circulation of Yosemite images had made the region a mythic American landscape, redolent of the grandeur, expansiveness, and power Americans had come to associate with the West and, by extension, the nation as a whole.

  image- Photograph of the Yosemite, by Helios Enlarge image
Valley of the Yosemite, by Helios (Eadweard Muybridge)
Reprint by Chicago Albumen Works, 1972
From original wet-plate negative


It took six years to produce the photographs Stanford sought. Muybridge’s experiments were interrupted in 1874 when he went on trial for the murder of his wife’s lover. Acquitted on grounds of justifiable homicide, he spent two years photographing in Central America before returning to Stanford’s farm. In 1878, Muybridge finally succeeded in photographing the horse in motion.

Muybridge used the wet plate process, a relatively slow method of photography. The resulting images were hardly more than silhouettes, but they showed what had never before been seen by the unaided eye.

  image- Gaits of the HorseEnlarge image
Gaits of the Horse, by E. Muybridge Lantern slides from original photographs made for Leland Stanford, Palo Alto, California, 1878

National Museum of American History