Film History Essentials: The Kiss (1884)

What it’s about:

Two nude women step toward each other, right arms outstretched as though for a handshake. They clasp hands and draw each other in, leaning forward to kiss as the woman on the right reaches out with her left hand to clasp the other woman’s arm. The scene is shot from 3 angles: from the side and then separately from behind each woman, all at such a distance as to precisely contain their full bodies in the frame.

Why it’s essential:

This sequence is listed on the most authoritative movie databases with a date of 1882. I don’t know how that came about, but I’m fairly certain that, as with the last film, that date can’t possibly be correct. In 1882, Eadweard Muybridge was embroiled in his lawsuit against Leland Stanford over credit for his photographs of Stanford’s horses. This suit was not simply a point of pride for Muybridge. In the wake of Stanford’s failure to credit him, London’s Royal Society of Arts, believing Muybridge had plagiarized, rescinded an offer of funding for his photographic studies, entirely upending his plans.

However, in 1883 he got an offer from the University of Pennsylvania and they set him up in a studio in Philadelphia, where he took tens of thousands of images over the following years. These appear to have been taken in that studio. I’ve put the year as 1884, not as definitive, but as a guess at the earliest date these could likely have been taken . . . Though in fact they are copyrighted 1887, as are the thousands of other photographs published by Muybridge that year in his monumental collection Animal Locomotion: An Electro-photographic Investigation of Consecutive Phases of Animal Movements. I’m not entirely sure where or when this title The Kiss originates, either, though that, too, is its standard film database listing. In Animal Locomotion, the page reads only “Plate 444,” and it seems to be cataloged elsewhere under the more descriptive title “Two women kissing.”

Regardless of what it’s called or when, precisely, it was taken, we have returned to a discussion of Muybridge’s work one final time because Plate 444 has a significance that went unrecognized until relatively recently: It represents the first-ever moving image of a kiss, predating the previous “first” by about a decade. And, at the height of the Victorian Era, it just happens to be a kiss between two women. And they both happen to be nude. The nudity, at least, doesn’t seem terribly significant. Certainly, a great many of Muybridge’s subjects appear in the nude, whether men, women, or children, and this seems entirely in keeping with what we’d expect from photographic studies of the motion of the human body that went on to become a major point of reference for artists. Their purpose was not to titillate.

Of even greater interest to modern audiences is the fact that this was a same-sex kiss. Does that make it an early victory for representation? Perhaps. I’m not here to burst anyone’s bubble on that front. I will say that I’ve also seen it suggested in a few places that photographing a nude man and a nude woman inhabiting the same physical space would have been considered pornographic, and that strikes me as a plausible consideration. But these two narratives are not mutually exclusive, either. Who these women were, and what, if anything, they were to each other is lost to history, and Muybridge’s intentions remain equally opaque. All we have are the images themselves.

Why you should see it:

As described at the beginning of the video below, I’ve embedded a version with a few different interpretations of this sequence of photographs. It sets them in motion at a few different speeds, and also includes a 2012 “remix” of sorts that incorporates music and some creative editing by a UK-based artist. I’m not sure that it really adds anything to the experience, but at less than a minute you can afford to form your own opinion. Here also is a link to a high-quality image of the original page containing all 24 photographs. Regardless of what version you prefer to experience, I hope you’ll agree that there’s something beautiful about witnessing such a simple, physical display of human connection and affection across all these years.

~ by Jared on January 7, 2023.

One Response to “Film History Essentials: The Kiss (1884)”

  1. […] as one of the earliest examples of LGBT representation on screen. As with Muybridge’s The Kiss, I’m not here to declare definitively what does or doesn’t count as queer imagery, but […]

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