Film History Essentials: Buffalo Running (1884)

What it’s about:

A buffalo, shot in profile against a light backdrop through 16 consecutive images, gallops heavily across a patch of bare ground.

Why it’s essential:

Eadweard Muybridge produced a truly staggering number of photographic motion study sequences during the 20-year period that began with his partnership with Leland Stanford. A great many of them are quite striking and could certainly be discussed as significant in some way, but they do tend to fall into fairly broad categories. Any series that began examining each one individually would inevitably grow repetitive almost immediately, at least if it were produced by someone who knows as little about the art and science of photography as I do. But, as we move sequentially through significant moments in film history, I do think it’s worth pausing once again to elaborate further on this work chosen as representative of many (rather than as the most important singled-out of all).

You will find this extremely short sequence listed in various film databases as Buffalo Running with a date of 1883. However, it is known that this series was one of several taken at the Philadelphia Zoo, and we also know from contemporary newspaper accounts that Muybridge conducted his photographic sessions there late during the summers of 1884 and 1885, so I’ve chosen to substitute a date from that timeframe here. Furthermore, although it is generally titled “Buffalo Running” as seen above, Muybridge published it in his Animal Locomotion collection with only the words “Plate 700” and a copyright date of 1887 (the year of the collection’s publication). Interestingly, like the series preceding it (Plate 699), this is cataloged as “A buffalo walking,” though that seems erroneous, as well. (Incidentally, if you look closely at the linked image, you can plainly see the edge of the screen erected behind the buffalo, stretched tight and held aloft by a simple frame of some kind.)

In any case, this brief clip makes clear (all the more if you set it to run on a loop) both the advances Muybridge had made to his methods and equipment in the several years since he photographed Sallie Gardner, and a hint of how he had begun to branch out in his choice of subjects. In addition to large, galloping quadrupeds, Muybridge photographed kicking mules, strolling capybaras, trotting ostriches, flying cockatoos, and on and on and on. And those were just the animals. He began photographing humans in motion just as extensively during this time as well, with just as diverse a range of motions. Clearly this was no longer just a casual experiment undertaken between long expeditions around the world. The unexpected success of his experimental photography prompted him to change the entire course of his career, which in turn changed (even in some ways set) the course of film history.

By 1893, Muybridge’s fame and influence was such that a Zoopraxographical Hall was specially built for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where he gave a series of lectures accompanied by projected motion pictures using his invention for which the building was named. With audiences of paying customers in attendance, it has been called the first commercial movie theater.

Why you should see it:

Muybridge took these photographs at a time when the buffalo had been hunted nearly to extinction, and this was one of only a few hundred left alive. As fortunate as we are to have these surviving images, we are even more fortunate that they are not of a now-extinct species of animal. For that reason alone, I recommend you enjoy watching this majestic creature loping gamely into our present-day world alongside the many descendants of his species.

~ by Jared on January 6, 2023.

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