Seeing how they run: horses in early photography and film

Being a historian – and that is anyone with an interest in history – is like being a time traveller. It’s possible to go anywhere you’d like to go in the past and still be back in time for tea. Then you can go off on another journey, to the same place or a different one; and even the same place can be a new destination if you read a number of different interpretations of the past. It’s astonishing how much diversity there is in historical writing and interesting to see how specialist historians choose to focus on different aspects of people, places and activities.

One thing recurs, though; and that is, just how ubiquitous horses, ponies and mules  were before the arrival of the train and the car. That’s obviously the major theme of historyonhorseback, but even I am surprised sometimes when I stumble on an unexpected connection to the horse in an area that I hadn’t previously considered researching.

The start of this journey was a feature in Amateur Photographer, written by David Clark, about the man who formulated the first photographic process: Joseph Nicéphore Niépce.

The oldest photograph in existence – includes a horse!

I had never heard of this man but then I’d never claim to be an expert on the history of photography. I certainly knew about Eadweard Muybridge and his contribution to photography and film and the role horses had played in that – which I’ll discuss shortly. But Niépce? Who was he? As I turned the page, an image of a man leading a horse caught my eye. I read the caption: “Niépce’s image of an engraving, depicting a man leading a horse, made in 1825…”

The oldest photograph still in existence: an image of a 17th engraving of horse and man

Yes, that’s right – the earliest photograph still in existence is of a man leading a horse. The reproduction of the engraving, in the pages of AP, showed a warm yellowy-pink background with a faded looking image of horse and man. The man is looking anxiously up at the horse and is holding it tightly on a lead rope with his hand close to its jaw, whilst the horse shows its anxiety by throwing its head up and opening its mouth. Its back is tense and the hindlegs almost crouched in appearance. It looks as though it is jibbing, refusing to go on, possibly even about to rear up. The man is barefoot and gives the impression of being one of the many who hung about inns and houses in the hope of holding someone’s horse for them in return for a tip. He looks as though he’s taken on more than he expected here. Or is he leading up the horse at a horse fair? Or stealing it?

Equestrians will also note that one of the bare feet of the man is very close to the hoof of the horse. Has he perhaps been trodden on, yelped and surprised the horse? It’s a scenario that most of us will have experienced at some point, though not with bare feet, perhaps.

It isn’t a photograph of  a real horse of course, it’s an image of an image, a 17th century engraving. It would be years before photography was capable of capturing motion successfully and so there would never have been any question of Niépce trying out his new invention on a moving animal. This is one of the earliest photographic images ever made and in retrospect perhaps it’s not surprising and also quite touching that it should include a horse.

A golden generation

Joseph Niépce was a remarkable character.  Born in Chalon-sur-Saone in France in 1765, he later adopted the name Nicéphore after a Byzantine bishop and saint, Nicephorus. Niépce was one of a remarkable generation; the revolutionary and post-revolutionary Napoleonic generation that produced so many original scientific thinkers whose legacy still touches our lives on a daily basis, although we may not always be conscious of it.

Niépce began his experiments in producing fixed images using the existing technology of the camera obscura. It was quite usual to trace the images cast by this interesting invention, but Niépce wanted to find a way to fix the images in some sort of permanent medium in a way that didn’t involve tracing. He experimented with silver nitrate but struggled to produce something that didn’t fade until he did further experiments with bitumen and lavender oil.

His first known successes date from the late 18th century although these images deteriorated quickly and nothing remains of them. I do find it fascinating to think that if he had succeeded at this early date, we might have had photographs of Napoleon’s 1798 expedition to Egypt and the “savants” who took part in the world’s first multi-disciplinary scientific investigation. This date also marks the start of the study of ancient Egypt as a separate discipline which is also known as Egyptology. And there is, perhaps, a curious link to Egypt, or at least to the ancient world, in the name Niépce gave his process, which was “Heliography”, or “sun writing”, in recognition of the need for light exposure to produce the image. Helios is of course the name of  a sun deity – often visualised as driving a chariot through the sky – and the ancient Egyptians had numerous forms and expressions for worshipping the manifestations of their own sun god.

In contrast to Niépce, the life of Eadweard Muybridge is generally better known and more widely documented. His life began and ended in Kingston-on-Thames in the UK, but in between those events, it was one hell of a hair-raising ride.

An old mystery resolved

Muybridge was born Edward James Muggeridge in 1830 and so into a world where photography was recently established, growing and evolving. He moved to the USA where he changed his name several times. A stagecoach accident caused him to return to the UK for a while and it was here that he studied photography.  On recovery, he returned to America and worked as a successful photographer, using the name “Helios” for his business and the signature on his prints.

It’s hard to tell how long the discussion about animal motion had been going on. It might have been for centuries. Certainly in the ancient world it was standard practice, when producing images of galloping animals such as horses, to show them in a strange pose called “the flying gallop”: the front and back legs are stretched out somewhat like those of a rocking horse. This strange and inaccurate portrayal persisted right up until the 19th century, arguably reaching its height in the 17th century AD. Attempts to show other paces were slightly more successful, although in some of the ancient images of walking horses, the horses’ feet appear to be stuck to the floor; not one hoof is raised although the legs are bent as though in motion. The correct leg sequence of each of the paces of a horse was strangely hard to portray although it could clearly be felt by any equestrian. And it was the new invention of photography that would finally resolve some very ancient issues regarding movement.

In 1877, Muybridge became involved in the debate when the Californian Governor, Stanford, argued that when a horse was trotting, a two-beat pace where the legs are on the diagonal (that is, the foreleg and hindleg on the same side are alternately together and apart) there was a moment of suspension when all four legs were off the ground. Previously, this had been impossible to prove one way or another.

A horse in the air: but not in the flying gallop (Source: Wikipedia.)

Muybridge managed to get a single photographic shot showing that there was indeed a moment of suspension and this led on to further investigations. He ingeniously came up with ways of recording a sequence of movements, firstly by using threads that triggered photographic shots as the horse broke through each one; these could then be copied and turned rapidly in sequence on a machine called the zoopraxiscope, to recreate the impression of movement. Then, secondly, he developed a more reliable clockwork version to replace the thread process. He was able to demonstrate that in gallop, there is also a point when all four legs are off the ground; this occurs when the legs are drawn together at their closest and the idea of the flying gallop was finally dispelled, in horses at least, although the debate was still alive and well in the 1930s with regard to other animals. The sequence, of one of Stanford’s horses, entitled: “Sally Gardner at a gallop” is still breathtaking to watch.

Fortune’s wheel

It would seem as though Muybridge was destined for fame as the founding father of cinematography with these very early versions of movies; and indeed, he did have a successful career as a lecturer and creator of moving and sequential images. His publication “Animal Location”, with photographic sequences of both human and animal subjects in motion, is still a useful reference for artists, amongst others.

However, as with Niépce, who also had personal and financial issues to drain him, Muybridge’s personal and professional life collapsed into ruin. Eventually he fell into dispute and litigation with Stanford – and lost – but prior to that there was a far greater scandal and tragedy. Muybridge’s wife was having an affair  with an army major, Harry Larkyns and in 1874 Muybridge approached him, spoke briefly to him and then shot him dead. Muybridge was acquitted on the basis of “justifiable homicide” rather than insanity as a result of his earlier head injury, a legal decision that does seem somewhat extraordinary nearly 150 years later.

Niépce and Muybridge; two totally diverse pioneers whose contributions to photography and, in the case of Muybridge, cinematography, are outstanding.  And where those pioneers were, so too were horses.

Amateur Photographer, 24 – 31 December 2011, Icons of Photography: View from the Window at Le Gras pp 50 – 52. Feature by David Clark.

Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 56, No 2 June 1936, pp 178 – 188, Two Notes on the Flying Gallop by William F. Edgerton.

For more about Muybridge:

For more about Niepce, there is a museum devoted to his work:

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