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Saturday, September 11, 2010

Photography Versus Painting

In our media-driven cultural world, people pay big bucks to go to a theater and see a movie.  They pay somewhat smaller bucks to rent the same movie on DVD several months later. Never do you hear of people today paying money to see a new painting.  There is no competition. The very idea is laughable. However, during the nineteenth century, there was a very real rivalry between painting and photography. And, by and large, it was something of a dead heat most of the time with the gradual improvements in the art and science of photography being met more or less one to one with similar improvements in the art, if not the science, of painting.

However with the dawn of the twentieth century the Lumiere brothers, Edison, and others began to do something with cameras and film that no painter could ever hope to do. They began to make pictures move. Painters had long done "moving" pictures, emotionally speaking, of course. However photographers, now called "film makers," could create moving pictures both figuratively and literally. By projecting a series of slightly differing images at the astounding rate of 25 per second onto a bed sheet, the eye fed the brain images so fast as to create the illusion of a single "motion" picture.

The Derby of Epsom, 1821, Gericault
The Lumieres and Edison however owed their success to the more basic experiments in motion photography conducted by an American, Eadweard Muybridge, as far back as 1878. For years before this time, painters had often depicted running horses with both front and back legs fully extended, in effect, all four legs off the ground at one time. It seems two race horse owners, fell into an argument as to whether such depictions were, in fact, accurate. One argued that it was impossible for all four of a horse's feet to leave the ground at the same time else it would fall flat on its face. The other insisted to the contrary. Muybridge was engaged to settle a bet between the two men.

Muybridge met the challenge by rigging up a series of cameras around the outside perimeter of a track with a thin tripwire stretched from the camera's shutter across the track to posts on the opposite side. When the horse ran in front of the cameras, it in effect, took a series of pictures of itself recording it's every move.

Muybridge's series of photos indicated any
number of equine leg configurations
artists might use, but none of them were
like what had traditionally been used.
 Who won the bet? Why the first gentleman of course. The second gentleman apparently knew little about the laws of physics and even less about the principles of momentum. However the painters of the time lost as well. The painted images that had sparked the argument in the first place, were, in fact, wrong! Muybridge's studies demonstrated that the movement of a horse in running was much more complex than anything they'd ever depicted on canvas. Later, western painters like Frederick Remington were strongly influenced by Muybridge's ground-breaking work.

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