A Fascinating, Fake Biography for a Fascinating, Real Photographer

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Robert Seidman's novel Moments Captured embellishes the tale of Eadweard Muybridge, inventor of stop-action photography, for a romantic, technologically-driven epic.

murbridge horse in motion 6615 sheller.jpg
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) was a real man who really invented stop-action photography so as to capture what real motion really looked like. Robert Seidman's new book about him, Moments Captured, is largely fake—belonging to a long tradition of historical fiction that makes for an engrossing read and that may or may not tell us much about what their subject was really like.

"There are many ways to illuminate history," Seidman told me. "Fiction is one."

The novel opens with a frustrated Muybridge stymied by the limits of technology. Because of the long exposure time needed by the wet-plate process, he is unable to photograph a stagecoach robbery unfolding before his eyes. This triggers his quest to capture motion, which involves using an electromagnet to trigger his multiple cameras' lenses and thus successively "shoot" at one-thousandth of a second. This is true.

Muybridge slaves to create the miracle device because he has fallen in love with the beautiful suffragette and dancer Holly Hughes. His lifelong purpose: to capture Holly in motion. This is fiction.

After murdering Hughes's lover—fiction—Muybridge is forced to move to Philadelphia. By then, his cameras are able to record animals as they trot, canter, gallop—and similarly, his human subjects as they stroll, wrestle, dance, and even disrobe. So toward the end of Moments Captured, and this is truth, Muybridge invents one of the first, if not the first, motion-picture projector.

"Whenever I invented incidents," Seidman says, "I tried to make those events historically credible, tried to be true to what was intellectually and technically possible in the 1870s and 1880s. I took this license with history for one simple reason: In order to make the novel's narrative as compelling as possible."

The "real" Eadweard Muybridge was wildly eccentric and a much stranger character, Seidman told me, compared to the protagonist of Moments Captured. "I was less interested in the man's pathology than in his soaring ambition and dedication to his work." Seidman's Muybridge is, therefore, consumed and partly destroyed by the obsessive, love-driven desire to produce superb photographs.

Seidman was also fascinated by the challenges confronting itinerant 19th-century photographers, and in "a pioneering perfectionist who doesn't 'win.'" In crafting his narrative he drew upon the machinery of America's expansionist history to inhibit, "even grind away at the three principal characters. Their single-track ambitions blind them to other realities—Muybridge's photographs, Holly's dedication to feminism, and Muybridge patron Leland Stanford's epic construction of the transcontinental railroad, each of these undertakings collides with immovable forces."

To make the book a "technological romance," Seidman invented Holly Hughes: "I made her a dancer so that the novel could be about a strong, beautiful woman who Muybridge felt compelled to photograph in motion." In fact, Muybridge was married to Flora Shallcross Stone, a divorcee roughly half his age whom a contemporary described as a boring, superficial woman.

Seidman also wanted his characters to work out their conflicts on what he calls an epic canvas. So while reality, Muybridge did not photograph the Central Pacific Railroad's deadly race to lay track over the Sierra Nevada, Seidman placed him in the mountains because the story was so engaging. And to allow for the murder on which the plot turns—and which recalls The Devil in the White City—Seidman had to make poor Muybridge "descend into a psychological hell."

And what of its main character's signature achievement? Seidman may have fudged how Muybridge got there, but he knows the impact of his invention is very real. "Those of us who watched the 30th Summer Olympics were awed by the stop-motion shots of athletes—Muybridge's 19th-century technological innovations were visible everywhere in the NBC telecasts," he says. "Yet only a handful of the tens of millions of viewers had ever heard the name of the photographer who invented stop action." If, then, more people come to know Muybridge in part because of a spicy, fictional plot, there's nothing fake about Moments Captured's impact.

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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