Photo Pioneer Shot More Than Just Pictures

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Eadweard Muybridge's pioneering time-lapse photography laid the foundation for Hollywood movies -- and his colorful life could have been one.

Muybridge, a 19th century British American, made his name documenting animals and humans in motion. He also killed his wife's lover and dodged the hangman, thanks to a couple of good lawyers.

Despite his long tenure in California, he spent at most a few hours in Los Angeles -- as a stagecoach passenger. But he inspired hundreds of Times stories, books, a play and an opera, as well as a 1976 biography by Robert Bartlett Haas, "Muybridge: Man in Motion."

Born Edward James Muggeridge in 1830 in England, he changed his name to Eadweard Muybridge, which he said was its original Anglo-Saxon form, when he immigrated to the United States at age 21. "The 'muy' may have reflected the belief in an infusion of Spanish blood in his ancestry," Haas wrote.

Moving to San Francisco in 1856, he opened a bookstore.

In the late 1850s, while other artists were putting landscapes on canvas, Muybridge took up the fledgling field of photography. With his lens, he recorded the booming city's vistas and Yosemite's natural splendors.

In the summer of 1860, while one of his brothers minded the store, Muybridge boarded the Butterfield Overland Stage to see and photograph the country by way of Los Angeles to the East Coast. In Texas, the driver lost control at breakneck speed. The coach overturned, killing at least one passenger and tossing Muybridge head-first into a boulder. Butterfield scouts found him hours later, unconscious.

After weeks in the hospital, Muybridge went on to New York, where he filed a $10,000 lawsuit against Butterfield. "It was settled for a quarter the sum he had asked," Haas wrote.

Back in San Francisco in 1867, Muybridge began driving a horse and buggy with a sign advertising "The Flying Studio." He built a reputation for photography.

In 1872, he married Flora Stone, a divorced beauty who worked as a touch-up artist at another San Francisco studio. He was 42; she was 21.

That year, railroad baron and former Gov. Leland Stanford hired Muybridge to shoot a series of photos of one of his racehorses to prove that the animal lifted all his hoofs off the ground at once. He had a bet with another horse-fancier, Haas wrote.

Stanford won the bet, showing that galloping horses are briefly airborne, Haas wrote, but "we have only Muybridge's word for it that he photographed the horse in 1872." No photos exist, though a San Francisco newspaper wrote about it in 1873.

Later in 1872, Muybridge headed to northeastern California. The U.S. War Department wanted him to document the Modoc War, the only major Indian conflict waged in the state. About 150 Modocs had bolted from the reservation when the Army failed to feed them. It took 1,000 soldiers and nearly six months to force them to return.

Muybridge captured panoramas of the Army encampment, cave-riddled lava beds, wounded soldiers and Modocs.

When he returned to San Francisco, he learned that his wife had not been lonely: Muybridge surprised her in the arms of her lover, Harry Larkyns, a one-time drama critic for the San Francisco Post. He warned Larkyns to get out of town.

Larkyns scrammed to Calistoga, where he mapped mining areas around Napa and Sonoma.

Flora, as it turned out, was pregnant. In April 1874, she gave birth to a boy, Floredo Helios Muybridge. Her husband doubted that the child was his and determined to track down Larkyns.

On Oct. 17, 1874, Muybridge showed up at a cabin near Calistoga where Larkyns was playing cribbage. He called Larkyns outside and shot him through the heart. Then Muybridge walked into the cabin and surrendered to await the sheriff.

He spent four months in jail before going on trial for first-degree murder in February 1875. Two friends of Stanford, Cameron King and William Wirt Pendegast, defended him.

Defense attorneys brushed aside any suggestion of insanity brought on by the stagecoach head injury. Instead, they claimed justifiable homicide.

Speaking to 12 male jurors, Pendegast went to the heart of the matter: "It is the weakness of the law that there is no adequate punishment for the seducer.... If you love virtue, good women, home and friends, acquit him, and teach the libertine that in this state, at least, the purity and sanctity of the domestic hearth will be preserved inviolate."

The jury deliberated 13 hours before acquitting Muybridge, who sobbed in relief.

To help Muybridge regain his health and to help his own business ventures, Stanford sent him to Central and South America on a photographic mission. His wife died while he was away, in July 1875. She was 24.

"She lingered there alone for a couple of weeks, suffering from paralysis," according to one newspaper account, while a French family cared for her son. The cause of the paralysis was unknown. Muybridge later learned that "Flora's last words as she lay in the hospital were, 'I am sorry,' " Haas wrote.

In 1877, Muybridge returned to San Francisco and put Floredo in an orphanage, paying for his upkeep. Muybridge began pursuing a more serious study of "animal locomotion" at Stanford's Palo Alto ranch.

"Stanford was getting impatient," said Hollywood historian Marc Wanamaker. "So he called in John Isaacs," an electrical engineer on the Central Pacific Railroad, of which Stanford was part owner. Isaacs teamed up with Muybridge.

"If it weren't for Isaacs," Wanamaker said, "Muybridge would have never pulled it off."

In 1878, Muybridge set up a sequence of 12 evenly spaced cameras and incorporated Isaacs' electronic shutter-tripping system. Stanford called in the press to see Muybridge capture his galloping horse, Sallie Gardner, lifting all four feet off the ground at once.

Muybridge traveled and lectured on the accomplishment, using his cumbersome invention, the Zoopraxiscope, to show the sequence of photographs in rapid succession.

"His Zoopraxiscope is the forerunner of today's motion picture projector," Wanamaker said.

Muybridge also photographed movements of other animals and of men and women. He published a book called "The Attitudes of Animals in Motion" in 1881, then went to Europe.

While he was abroad, Stanford issued a volume of the time-lapse work called "The Horse in Motion" and left Muybridge's name off the book. Muybridge sued Stanford, but the case was dismissed because he had been working for Stanford. The dispute ruined their friendship.

In 1884, Muybridge moved Floredo, 10, to a Sacramento ranch where the child was a stable boy. "Despite his ambiguous background and tragic early childhood, Floredo was a responsive boy and a good worker, but he did not seem to develop intellectually," Haas wrote.

Muybridge left California for the University of Pennsylvania, where he found a home for his elaborate camera setups, culminating in an 11-volume series of books on human and animal movement.

In 1892, he came to California for the last time and saw Floredo, who was 18. "Seeing now how limited a personality Floredo had come to be, and how little desire he had for further education or accomplishment, Muybridge decided to terminate his responsibility," Haas wrote.

He gave Floredo a gold watch and a photo of himself but excluded him from his will. "Despite the fact that Floredo had developed a striking resemblance to Muybridge, the man whom he called father rejected him," Haas wrote. (Floredo died in 1944, at age 70.)

Muybridge returned to England, where he died in 1904.

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