“Exposing Muybridge,” a documentary on the art and science of the pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge, trots into release less than two weeks after Jordan Peele’s “Nope” put a new spotlight on Muybridge’s proto-cinematic images of horses in motion.
The documentary, written and directed by Marc Shaffer, is in some ways a standard, PBS-ready biographical survey in which talking heads relate the highlights of Muybridge’s career. By comparison, Thom Andersen’s “Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer,” from 1975, made more innovative use of Muybridge’s photographs for visual and storytelling purposes. Still, Shaffer devotes time to aspects of Muybridge’s legacy that don’t make all the standard rundowns.
Before Muybridge turned his attention to motion, the movie notes, he shot landscapes in the West. Shaffer trails the photographers Byron Wolfe and Mark Klett to Tenaya Lake in Yosemite National Park in California, where they try to locate Muybridge’s original vantage point. They also analyze photographs of the same location by the 20th-century photographers Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, to shed light on Muybridge’s distinctive eye as an artist.
Others share views on Muybridge’s eccentricities. The actor Gary Oldman, a collector of Muybridge’s work who has been involved in trying to make a Muybridge biopic, comes off as a serious enthusiast when expounding on the photographer’s motives and photographs. The biographer Marta Braun and the art historian Amy Werbel challenge the idea that Muybridge’s motion studies at the University of Pennsylvania should count as scientific, in line with the university’s ostensible expectations. The film historian Tom Gunning suggests that Muybridge was, unwittingly, something of a Surrealist forebear.
While starchy in presentation, “Exposing Muybridge” makes clear that its subject’s images still have a lot to show us.