The rows of black-and-white photographs, each slightly different, feel like a slow-motion film: two men boxing, a horse and rider galloping, a cockatoo in flight.
Eadweard Muybridge’s groundbreaking work is the focus of “Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change,” which opened Saturday at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The fascinating exhibition, which originated at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., includes more than 300 objects created from 1857 to 1893.
“Before Muybridge, you could not stop motion with a camera,” says Philip Brookman, chief curator at the Corcoran. “He developed a new technology that completely changed how we see the world.”
Although he was born in England, Muybridge spent much of his career as a photographer in San Francisco. The show includes striking panoramic views of The City as well as prints of the construction of City Hall.
Reflecting the rapidly changing world in which he found himself, he traveled widely, documenting the Modoc War and the construction of the railroads in the West.
Muybridge was a master of his craft, climbing into difficult spots to get the perfect shot or using a horse-drawn cart as a portable darkroom. Pushing the limits of technology, he learned to create negatives as large as 17 by 22 inches to produce sweeping landscapes of the Pacific coast, Yosemite and other areas.
Often he manipulated images to create a more dramatic effect, such as painting a moon on a negative and printing it dark to suggest night. Clouds in an 1872 print of Yosemite Valley bear a striking similarity to those in a picture of a lighthouse a year later. Photographers at the time had to do that, Brookman explains, because of the limits of technology.
There are several examples of Muybridge’s stop-motion photographs from his Animal Locomotion series. Using as many as 24 cameras and an electric shutter he invented, he was able to photograph humans and animals moving — a horse trotting along a race track, for instance, or a woman jumping over a stool.
The series of sequential photographs will be familiar to viewers fond of Muybridge’s work; he showed that as horses run, they briefly lift all four hooves off the ground.
The show is the first retrospective of the artist’s pioneering work. It includes Muybridge’s only surviving Zoopraxiscope — a device he designed in 1879 to project motion pictures.
Brookman says Muybridge’s influence is felt in the works of numerous artists who have followed, from Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” to U2’s video for their song, “Lemon.”
“I hope people will understand the complexity of Muybridge’s vision,” he says. “He was incredibly accomplished.”
If you go
Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change
Where: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St., San Francisco
When: 11 a.m. until 5:45 p.m. daily except closed Wednesdays and until 8:45 p.m. Thursdays; closes June 7
Tickets: $18 general, $9 seniors and students, free for children 12 and under and free first Tuesday each month; half-price after 6 p.m. Thursdays
Contact: (415) 357-4000, www.sfmoma.org