What happens next?

Sleep with me series, Pihla, Nanna Saarhelo, 2007

Sleep with me series, Pihla, Nanna Saarhelo, 2007, from PM Gallery

Occasionally on the Bioscope we look to cinema’s roots in chronophotography, optical toys, magic lanterns and such like, and a new exhibition has just opened which both takes us back to chronophotography and up to the present day.

What Happens Next? is an exhibition dedicated to the photographic sequence. It takes as its inspiration the work of the nineteenth century photographer, Eadweard Muybridge, whose sequence photography – or chronophotography – of the 1870s/80s did so much to inspire the creation of cinema. The exhibition runs at the PM Gallery in West London 8 February-15 March 2008, and it explores the work of artists working in sequence photography from the nineteenth century to today. The artists featured are John Blakemore, Julie Cassels, Matt Finn, Steffi Klenz, Mari Mahr, Edweard Muybridge, James Newton, Nanna Saarhelo, Andrew Warstat, Sally Waterman and Cary Welling.

Coinciding with the exhibition is an article on Muybridge in this week’s New Scientist magazine (only an extract is available online). It’s a thoughtful piece (certainly a lot more thoughtful than its dire title, ‘Lights, camera, action!’ would seem to promise), with more emphasis on Muybridge’s Zoopraxiscope discs that one normally finds. The Zoopraxiscope was Muybridge’s proto-animation device, whereby he transferred some of his photographic sequences in silhouette form onto the edges of a glass disc so that they could be projected as fleeting animated images.

What Muybridge did not do was ever show his photographic sequences themselves as projected images in motion – he wasn’t able to. And yet how often to we see something like the animated sequences featured in this video?

This short piece on the exhibition has been posted on YouTube by the New Scientist, which rather goes to show that there are some limits to its knowledge of science. Muybridge’s photographic sequences were never seen in motion like this. To make them move he had to produce silhouettes derived from the photographs, making him a genuine pioneer of the animation film. The pure photographs he only displayed like so:

Ascending Stairs

Ascending Stairs

Of course, it is hugely tempting to animated Muybridge’s images, as has been done ever since Thom Andersen’s 1975 film Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer. Animated Muybridge sequences are found all over the Web, and have become an iconographic staple. But they falsify history – unless one argues that they display what Muybridge wanted to have displayed but was unable to achieve himself. In which case, they are a form of virtual history, which is all well and good, so long as we do not foget the true one.

As What Happens Next? demonstrates, chronophotography or sequence photography is alive and well today, practiced both as an art and as a science (either equally appropriate for Muybridge), for a sequential series both demonstrates a process and betrays a narrative. Chronophotographic sequences were used to striking effect for analysis in the BBC’s coverage of the last Winter Olympics, and there are numerous artists’ sites which display the possibilities of the medium. Some choice examples include P.J. Reptilehouse, Sequences, and my particular favourite, David Crawford, who photographs sequence of people on tube trains and at airports.

There’s also this review of What Happens Next?, which connects Muybridge with The Matrix, on the Telegraph‘s website.

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