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Eadweard Muybridge and the Union Park Racecourse

It was the Union Park Racetrack that was the site where some of the most prominent horse breeders trained and raced their thoroughbreds.  The best in the state were represented by Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker and Louis Haggin.  It was also at the Union Park Racecourse that some of the earliest experiments in photography were carried out by pioneer photographer Eadweard Muybridge.  His ground-breaking still photographs made in series of a running horse proved to be the basis upon which motion pictures were developed.


The Muybridge story is an interesting sidelight to the significance of the tract of land on which Boulevard Park was subsequently developed.  Muybridge, born in Kingston-on-Thames, England on April 9,1830 as Edward James Muggeridge, came to the United States in 1852.  Initially engaged as a book binder and seller in New York, he became interested in photography.  By 1855, he had moved to California and had changed his name to Muybridge.  After sustaining an injury in a stagecoach accident, he returned to England to recuperate and acquired photographic training as well as the latest in photographic equipment before returning to California in 1866.  In 1867 he worked for the government to document West Coast scenes, including a series of photos of Yosemite which were widely exhibited and brought him some positive recognition.  During the next three or four years, he embarked through the West to record the landscape in a darkroom wagon he dubbed “The Flying Studio.” He took many stereoscopic view and panoramas including a remarkable series of images of early San Francisco and some very early views of the Alaska territory.  In 1870, he was employed by the prominent photographic studio of Bradley and Rulofson in San Francisco.


Leland Stanford, one of the legendary Big Four railroad magnates and President of the Central Pacific Railroad, approached Muybridge wondering if it would be possible to confirm with documentary photographs whether a trotting horse had all four hooves off the ground at once.  As the action was too fast for the human eye to discern, Muybridge was challenged to capture a photographic image to solve the mystery.  Beginning in the spring of 1872, Muybridge photographed Stanford’s prized horse, Occident, but was stymied by the limits of the wet plate collodion process with its long exposure requirements.  Some of these earliest photographic experiments were undertaken at the Union Park Racecourse in Sacramento in May, 1872, according to the introduction to Muybridge’s book, Animals in Motion (1899).  He went on to carefully define the challenge he had been presented by Stanford:


...the principal subject of dispute was the possibility of a horse, while trotting - even at the height of his speed – having all four of his feet, at any portion of his stride, simultaneously free from contact with the ground.

The attention of the author was directed to this controversy, and he immediately resolved to attempt its settlement.  Having constructed some special exposing apparatus, and bestowed more than usual care in the preparation of the materials he was accustomed to use for ordinarily quick work, the author commenced his investigation on the race track at Sacramento, California, in May, 1872, where he in a few days made several negatives of a celebrated horse named Occident, while trotting, laterally, in front of his camera, at rates of speed varying from two minutes and twenty-five seconds to two minutes and eighteen seconds per mile.

The photographs resulting from this experiment were sufficiently sharp to give a recognizable silhouette portrait of the driver, and some of them exhibited the horse with all four of his feet clearly lifted, at the same time, above the surface of the ground.

So far as the immediate point at issue was concerned, the object of the experiment was accomplished, and the question settled for once and for all time in favour of those who argued for a period of unsupported transit.


The following April, Muybridge was able to capture a photographic silhouette of the trotting horse showing all four feet off the ground at the same time.  Muybridge described his technique in the April 7, 1873 edition of the Daily Alta California:


...All the sheets in the neighborhood of the stable were procured to make a white ground to reflect the object, and ‘Occident’ was after a while trained to go over the white cloth without flinching; then came the question how could an impression be transfixed of a body moving at the rate of thirty-eight feet to the second.  The first experiment of opening and closing the camera on the fist day left no result; the second day, with increasing velocity on opening and closing, a shadow was caught.  Muybridge, having studied the matter thoroughly, contrived to have two boards slip past each other by touching a spring, and in so doing leave an eighth of an inch opening for the five-hundredth part of a second, as the horse passed, and by an arrangement of double lenses, crossed, secured a negative that shows ‘Occident’ in full motion – a perfect likeness of the celebrated horse.  The space of time was so small that the spokes of the wheels of the sulky were caught as if they were not in motion.  This is considered a great triumph as a curiosity in photography – a horse’s picture taken while going thirty-eight feet in a second!


Shortly after these experiments were completed, Muybridge embarked on a photographic trip, leaving his young wife, Flora, at home.  While he was away, she and Major Harry Larkyns had an affair and she became pregnant with Larkyns’ son.  Upon his return, Muybridge discovered this fact and confronted Larkyns.  This exchange resulted in Muybridge shooting and killing the Major.  He was placed on trial for murder in February of 1875.  He was ultimately acquitted by reason of justifiable homicide and embarked on a long journey through Central America.


In July 1877, Muybridge was once again working with Leland Stanford to perfect the action photograph experiments.  Working at the Stanford ranch in Palo Alto, he developed a new shutter design and fitted up a series of twelve cameras capable of capturing images of the action of the horse’s gait in less than a half second.  These images proved to be superior to the early experiments and were published in photographic journals throughout the world.


Muybridge lectured about his ground-breaking photographic refinements throughout America and Europe beginning in 1880, employing a Zoopraxiscope projector which allowed him to use a large glass disc with his still photographic sequences painted around the perimeter.  These paintings could then be projected through the use of a lantern slide projection system while being rotated, giving the viewer the impression of movement.  In 1883 he was awarded a grant of $40,000 by the University of Pennsylvania to create over 100,000 studies of animal and human motion using his camera shutter invention.  At the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Muybridge projected his motion studies in the Zoopraxographic Hal1.  It would be these exhibitions that would lead to the development of the motion picture as Muybridge’s work inspired Thomas Edison and others in the 1890s to invent cinematography and the “movies,” conceived at the Union Park Racecourse in Sacramento in 1872, were born.


From Sacramento, California’s Boulevard Park Historic District Historic Context by Leslie Crow, Historian


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