02/02/14Tigress Walking (.075 second)
Animals in Motion, the photographic examination of animal movement by Eadweard Muybridge, contains a female tigress sequentially captured in plate136. According to the anatomical details, the tigress is walking for .075 second, one-half stride in 9 phases. The minute action shown over twelve images evokes predatory sensibilities. Her motion is dissected for acute analysis, both revealing and disarming her, for scientific purposes. Trickery and a sniff of covert manoeuvres ensured the tigress, borrowed from Philadelphia Zoo, paced in front of the multiple lenses as Muybridge’s revolutionary experimental images, deconstructed her movements and those of a variety of animals familiar to us, whose flight or gallop had eluded the human eye.
Muybridge who in 1872 was directing photographic surveys for the US Government on the Pacific Coast became aware of a debate about animal locomotion rearing its head in San Francisco. It is unclear why Muybridge suddenly began a serious investigation into this mysterious subject that had perplexed humanity and created fierce debate but he articulated an intense quest for the truth. This truth was within reach; the emergent photographic technologies, bespoke exposing apparatus and ‘a motor clock for making and breaking electric circuits’ that was critical in regulating the timings of the automatic exposures provided the means for the task.
The human, who had for so long been mystified and disarmed by patchy knowledge was suddenly on the edge of revelation about the mechanics of animals. Through persistence and enquiry, these mysteries puzzled over and articulated by ancient artists, became understood in the body of a mechanical box with a lens. A beady eye to scour and consume images akin to the telescreen of Orwell’s 1984. Like the revealing of Pip’s benefactor in Great Expectations, the truth, however, momentarily satisfies the lust for answers but in its capacity to reveal it soon deflates the original fable.
Muybridge’s tigress is a curio whose exact placement of her paws is noted through each phase of the camera sequence. She is monitored, inhabits the frame of the image against a white backdrop, a reductive action that renders her both fascinating and laboured. We are aware that her motion is stilted and presented in a makeshift studio with additional earth floor. We have no idea if it is inside or out. We are as disorientated as her, watching as the tigress enters stage left, like an unrehearsed actor in front of a hungry audience. A reversal of the Roman pastime of being thrown to the lions. She is ‘performing’ for the lens under punishments, threats or rewards.
As I gaze at the images, however, my fascination is with the head of the animal. Soaked in a white light, head positioned forward in plate 1, we struggle to see the full physiognomy of the animal but by plate 3 we can clearly make out her facial characteristics, her ‘beauty’. Through the plates, she reveals the full aspect of her head, from profile to full on frontal image. There is such an aching sadness about this sequence that dissipates off of the page. Something appears broken; unmendable that in its simplest terms can be applied to the fate of the tigress but in a wider context, says much about humanity. For all our sophisticated attempts to overcome the adversity and harsh demeanour of the earth, there is a bereavement for the passing of latent, inherited knowledge.
Instead of revelatory findings that triumph over nature’s own classified information what Muybridge’s plates might actually reveal in a mutual conflation are both the blueprint for animal motion in a static progression and the loss of instinctiveness, of animal intelligence that we once had in abundance to survive in the harsh environments of the earth. One is superseded by another. Trading the old in for new, the old rapidly dissipates like the details of a dream on waking.
Rather poignantly though is the fact that birds eluded Muybridge who ‘could not control his subjects..’ and subsequently deleted content in the section on birds due to the unsatisfactory nature of them. Somehow this raises a ripple of admiration to know that there was a failure in compliance of the bird population, a resistance to being pinned down in photographic plates for human consumption. (Their fates were sealed in other ways, largely through millinery decorations or shot and stuffed in glass cases).
Muybridge’s collection of images, presents a complexity of issues that go beyond mere image making for scientific endeavour. The reading of a subject presented in a photographic format is a dichotomy between illusion and truth. Susan Sontag in her seminal work On Photography offers another reading on this issue in the form of ‘..the persistent effort of photographers to feature the benevolent character of picture-taking and discount its predatory implications.’ She notes that photographers cannot be seen as either but are implicit in both of these characteristics when they take a photograph. It is she notes ‘an inherently equivocal connection between self and world. There is a disclosure and intimacy that occurs between photographer and subject (both animate and inanimate) that happens in a very momentary way in the action of the shutter consuming the image. Either side of that moment may be slow, considered and to paraphrase Sontag, a predatory action.
The emerging photographer Vicky Hodgson, whose work is predominantly concerned with exploring the position of the older woman in our society, may be seen in this paradigmatic context both as a kind of huntress and a chronicler.
Her lens captures the nuances of her subject, almost in a collapsed version of Muybridge’s sequential panoramas of motion. Whilst Muybridge shows step by step, the diagrammatical animal postures, Hodgson brings a condensed body of characteristics into one single shot of each woman.
Like a visual interview that occurs through the lens, photographer and subject present their silent dialogue in the photographic format. This potent singular record of each individual woman negates the superfluous and strips back to reveal the intricacies of the subjects, which resonates, with the tigress of Muybridge’s plates.
Hodgon’s residency at Meantime continues the thread of her exploration into the subject of women but with a different set of parameters to previous projects such as ‘Still Working’ that focused purely on the re-presentation of older women in a workplace setting.
During the residency, Hodgson has lingered around the side streets of Meantime’s studio in Cheltenham, finding women willing to be photographed and documented in both a studio setting and in personal spaces such as a living room. The project has continued the thread of investigation into the visibility of women but has also unveiled issues around where the work sits in terms of portraiture or situational documentary portraits. Perhaps Hodgson must resist the readiness to find slots for arranging our knowledge that Muybridge engaged in through his animal locomotion explorations. Her female subject matter has historically been enshrouded in the chatter of social expectations and demands. The work of photographers and artists like Hodgson destabilizes and renders them redundant.
Artist and Writer