The Body as Artifact

Early Cinema and Ethnography
  • Assenka Oksiloff


One of the key features in the union of camera and human subject is a type of reverse evolution, often evoked explicitly in the name of Darwinism, of the body from a complex biological and social organism into an artifact. This transformation is similar but by no means identical to the objectification of the body. Many possibilities present themselves in the history of modern media for studying this transformation, but one commonly cited origin is the stop-action photography of Eadweard Muybridge.1 Muybridge’s famous time motion studies of the 1870s and 1880s were published as photo sequences and were also displayed during his lectures on animal and human locomotion as transparencies projected by his “zoopraxiscope.” Arguably the most striking feature of Muybridge’s work is the scientific impulse underlying the photography. Muybridge’s photographs were originally intended as proof of a particular hypothesis regarding the stride of horses. From the horses, he moved on to other animals such as dogs, deer, and oxen as they walked or trotted along a track, and finally to humans leaping, wrestling, performing somersaults, and running. Cameras, strung along a track, recorded the action in a precise manner, with each shot exposed for 1/500 of a second, the exposures separated by 1/25 of a second. As Linda Williams notes in her discussion of Muybridge, the bodies in these photographs are figured as “repeatable mechanisms,” controlled by a battery of machines, and hence mirror the technological advancement of the recording devices.2


Physical Anthropology Natural View Film Theory Research Film German Tradition 
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© Assenka Oksiloff 2001

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