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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Eadweard Muybridge fundamentally changed how we think about photography. The images he produced over a hundred years ago have become iconic - sequential shots of racehorses or men walking their movements broken down frame by frame.

The largest retrospective ever of Muybridge's work has just begun a multi-city tour, and NPR's Neda Ulaby visited its first stop at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

NEDA ULABY: Eadweard Muybridge made photography a medium about time and motion with his freeze-framed images of galloping horses.

Mr. PHILIP BROOKMAN (Director Curatorial Affairs, Corcoran Gallery of Art): Many people didn't believe it. They thought they were fake because the horse looked so strange.

ULABY: The horse, caught aloft, all four hooves off the ground. Curator Philip Brookman says there was a huge scientific debate in the 1870s whether that was in fact possible. The movement's too fast for human eyes to register.

Muybridge answered the question with a brass and wood contraption he called a zoopraxiscope.

Mr. BROOKMAN: From the Greek means animal action viewer - something like that.

ULABY: Muybridge started by taking pictures of trees and rocks. The exhibition begins with his exquisitely composed landscapes of the Pacific Northwest, ethereal waterfalls, shadowy ranges.

Mr. BROOKMAN: The images are just spectacular. These are the images that inspired Ansel Adams to photograph Yosemite Valley.

ULABY: A 1974 documentary follows Muybridge's journey.

(Soundbite of documentary, "Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer")

Mr. DEAN STOCKWELL (Actor): (As Narrator) Traveling with a darkroom wagon he called the flying studio, and publishing his work under the pseudonym Helios, Muybridge undertook a systematic survey of the wonders and curiosities of Western America.

ULABY: Muybridge traveled widely at a time when travel itself was changing dramatically: from horsepower to iron and steam. As trains transformed how long it took for people to move through space, Muybridge captured it with his camera. He repelled into treacherous crevasses. He hauled his equipment to remote Alaskan villages.

(Soundbite of documentary, "Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer")

Mr. STOCKWELL: (As Narrator) Muybridge has gone to points where his packers refused to follow him and has carried the apparatus himself.

ULABY: Muybridge was tall and athletic, also willful and strange. In San Francisco, he married a girl half his age. She began an affair with an explorer named Harry Larkyns.

Mr. BROOKMAN: And the way the story's told in dramatic newspaper accounts from the time, Muybridge steps out of the shadows, says to Harry Larkyns, I have a message for you from my wife, and he shoots Larkyns through the heart and kills him.

ULABY: Corcoran Curator Philip Brookman says Muybridge was acquitted in court. He abandoned his child in an orphanage and ran off to Central America to shoot pictures. His wife became sick and died.

Philip Glass wrote an opera about the tragedy.

(Soundbite of opera, "The Photographer")

ULABY: The musical repetition, with subtle changes carrying great meaning, reflects the spirit of Muybridge's work. The photographer has influenced countless artists, from Degas to Sol LeWitt, even the directors of the movie "The Matrix."

(Soundbite of movie, "The Matrix")

Ms. CARRIE-ANN MOSS (Actress): (as Trinity) Dodge this.

(Soundbite of gunshot)

Mr. BROOKMAN: The breaking down of motion that you see in "The Matrix" comes directly from the animal locomotion project, where you see one moment of time depicted from all these different angles.

ULABY: Imagine, if you will, a grid, black boxes, white lines, a figure moving incrementally through each box. At the University of Pennsylvania, Muybridge began what would become his masterpiece. He took over a Philadelphia racetrack and set up as many as 30 cameras and a large grid. His ambition was to create an encyclopedia of motion.

(Soundbite of documentary, "Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer")

Mr. STOCKWELL: (As Narrator) This encyclopedia of motion encompassed 20,000 positions assumed by men, women and children - clothed and naked - and by birds and animals.

ULABY: Muybridge borrowed dozens of exotic animals from the Philadelphia zoo -elephants, antelopes, zebras. He shot them strolling, cantering and running on the track. And he photographed people wrestling athletes, legless amputees struggling onto chairs, folks opening umbrellas. The idea was to break down motion so it could be studied by scientists.

(Soundbite of documentary, "Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer")

Mr. STOCKWELL: (As Narrator) Muybridge made no attempt to spare his models from embarrassment or discomfort. He had them walk on all four, crawl on their hands and knees.

ULABY: And he had his nude female models do some things that may raise eyebrows even today, says curator Philip Brookman.

Mr. BROOKMAN: You know, if you're seeing a picture of a woman smoking, frame by frame raising a cigarette to her mouth, with another woman kind of leaning over her, both of them nude, I mean, it's very voyeuristic the way he's looking at everything so closely, and it's very hard to know today what Muybridge is thinking.

ULABY: Even if we can't read Muybridge's Victorian mind, something about his work feels very contemporary.

(Soundbite of song, "Lemon")

ULABY: Maybe it's because his photos are from a moment not unlike ours, when conceptions of time are in flux. Now, you can send snapshots by cell phone in seconds across the world. Bands, including U2, have made videos drawing explicitly on Muybridge's imagery.

(Soundbite of song, "Lemon")

U2 (Music Group): (Singing) A man makes the future, a moving picture...

ULABY: There's a common story here about human animals making their way through rigid modern structures - they restrict and define their flow of movement. Maybe something about the man who was first to stop time and put it back in motion makes sense in a sped-up world.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "Lemon")

U2: (Singing) Midnight...

SIEGEL: NPR's Picture Show is hosting a contest for Muybridge-inspired creations. Go to npr.org/pictureshow to learn more.

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