Film History Essentials: Sallie Gardner at a Gallop (1878)

What it’s about:

The dark silhouette of a horse and its rider appear against a light background passing in front of a sequence of numbered markers. The jockey stands in the saddle, never quite coming to a sitting position as the horse moves at a gallop (in this case at around 36 mph), its mane and tail streaming back as the rushing wind flies past. Played at a variety of speeds, the brief snippet offers either a vivid depiction of equine speed, or a previously unavailable dissection of precisely how a horse’s body moves at the height of a full gallop. And the latter, it turns out, was the whole point.

Why it’s essential:

Eadweard Muybridge was a somewhat eccentric English photographer, a pioneer in the field and a globetrotter. Leland Stanford, who had built a fortune in the California Gold Rush, was a former governor of the state, and, as a founder and the first president of the rail company that completed the western half of the first transcontinental railroad, he drove the ceremonial “golden spike” that signified the route’s completion in 1869. Stanford was also an enthusiastic trainer of racehorses. He had a belief that the long-standing theory of how horses moved at speed, which had guided artistic depictions of galloping horses for centuries, was incorrect, and that the infant science of photography could prove it. So, he recruited Muybridge and financed several attempts to capture images of a horse in motion.

Muybridge initially believed that Stanford’s objective couldn’t be accomplished with existing technology. Instantaneous photography was just too primitive, and shutter speeds were too slow to capture images at the necessary durations. Nevertheless, he set to work beginning in 1873. Over the next few years (with a few interruptions, including several months during which he was arrested and tried for murdering his wife’s lover), Muybridge slowly perfected the devices and process that could produce satisfactory results. In June of 1878, he took a series of photographs of the horse Sallie Gardner in motion using a battery of 24 cameras. The results clearly showed exactly what Stanford had suspected. The prevailing theory was wrong. The horse’s hooves did indeed all leave the ground simultaneously, and they did so while curled up under the horse’s body (the opposite of what many painting depicted), as it galloped around the track.

Muybridge began giving lectures using his images the following month, combining a phenakistiscope (an early device for simulating motion from a series of images) with a projector to demonstrate his findings for audiences, making Sallie Gardner and her rider the first stars of a movie. (Muybridge would soon develop his own invention, the zoopraxiscope, to better project his motion pictures, which in turn directly influenced the development of the first movie projectors, including Thomas Edison’s.) Muybridge’s use of these images was significant in 2 ways: It was the first time we know of that motion pictures were exhibited for an audience using images taken of real-life motion, and, as news spread of what Muybridge had done, people around the world were inspired by the possibilities and applications of motion picture photography and exhibition in a way that they hadn’t been before.

Why you should see it:

There’s just something deeply thrilling about witnessing a moving image of an event that took place almost 145 years ago. What I particularly like about the version I’ve embedded below is that it begins by showing a few repetitions of the sequence of photographs, including the image of the horse standing still. It then transitions to a loop of the horse moving in extreme slow motion to that you can take in every detail of the movement that people were discovering for the very first time thanks to Muybridge’s photographs. Finally, the loop gradually speeds up until it is running at full speed, clearly showing how impossible it is to discern the same information simply by observing with the naked eye, and allowing us to appreciate this brief glimpse of a galloping horse at its natural speed. These different presentations of the same images gives us a sense of the different ways audiences might have experienced them, depending on what the exhibitor intended to demonstrate at that moment. And, as I say, it’s simply a pleasure to watch.

~ by Jared on January 4, 2023.

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