Eadweard Muybridge, Tate Britain, London

This pioneering Victorian photographer led a hectic and colourful life, but his efforts for art and science are not what they seem

For a man who won fame revealing the truth, Eadweard Muybridge was oddly averse to it. There was, for a start, his name. Being Edward Muggeridge from Kingston upon Thames was never going to suit the future inventor of the zoopraxiscope. So, aged 25, he left Surrey for San Francisco, along the way mutating into Edward Muygridge and Eadweard Muygridge and finally, by 1879, Eadweard Muybridge. By then he would have made a suitably sporadic name for himself as a pioneer of stop-motion photography and cod zoologist and, most memorably, as a murderer. That he would die in 1904 in Kingston upon Thames seems almost unfair.

This lurid biography has, of course, got nothing to do with whether or not Muybridge was a great photographer or a good artist, the latter implied by a new show at Tate Britain. Caravaggio led a life of irreproachable dishonesty, but no one has ever suggested he couldn't paint. Muybridge's fraudulence cannot easily be separated from his art, though.

Arriving in America in 1855, he set about making the landscape photographs in the first part of the Tate's show, among them views of what would later become Yosemite National Park. These may be picturesque, but they are by no means original. Finding a grand style to show the winning of the West called for a certain genius, and his name was Carleton Watkins. It was Watkins who first hauled his Mammoth camera up Yosemite's crags, who had the vision to find a Western photographic sublime. If he was a pioneer, though, Watkins was too honest to be a good businessman. Not so Muybridge, or perhaps Muygridge, who made himself rich by setting up his own Mammoth on the exact same spots as Watkins, replicating his photographs precisely and marketing them under yet another pseudonym, Helios.

But Muybridge's real fame would arrive on four legs. In the mid-1870s, Leland Stanford, a former governor of California, commissioned him to settle the question of whether all four hooves of a galloping horse leave the ground at the same time. Using a dozen cameras set off in sequence, Muybridge proved that they do: the shots of Stanford's racehorse, Occident, frozen in mid-gallop and mid-air, sit at the centre of the Tate's show. The images are taken from a book called The Horse in Motion, which was published by Stanford in 1878 under his own name, without mentioning Muybridge. We may assume that Carleton Watkins laughed a hollow laugh; his imitator, however, did not. He sued his patron which, given that Stanford had saved Muybridge's skin when he shot his wife's lover, the wonderfully named Major Larkyns, in cold blood in 1874, seems ungrateful. Not surprisingly, Muybridge lost.

As I say, none of this would matter were his art not similarly suffused with dishonesty. The gridded backgrounds to many of his photographs suggest scientific intent, although Muybridge's contribution to the study of human locomotion was slight and the grids serve no useful function. The zoopraxiscope – an alleged forerunner of the motion-picture camera, included in this show – did not catch on. This pseudo-science did allow the Victorian photographer and his prurient audience to look at scenes of human degradation under the guise of learning, however, and also at human nudity. Muybridge dealt in extreme imperfection or its opposite, withered legs or the perfect physiques of wrestling male athletes, the eye-watering virility of the boxer, Ben Bailey. For us too, Muybridge's work is horribly compelling, although you may come away wishing it were not.

Next week

Charles Darwent on the truth about the Whitechapel's Keeping it Real

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