Max Décharné

The dark past of the pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge

A decade before taking his famous images of animal and human locomotion, Muybridge was lucky to escape the hangman after murdering his wife’s lover

A distinctive pattern of horizontal and vertical lines appears in the background of many of Eadweard Muybridge’s best-known photographs, giving his images of animal and human locomotion a strangely modern appearance, despite their being products of the 1880s. The lines also anticipate those adopted in the 20th century against which US criminals appear in police identification parades — which seems appropriate, given that a decade prior to taking these images, Muybridge himself was convicted of murder. Had the small-town jury not delivered a verdict of justifiable homicide — despite the fact that Muybridge deliberately sought out and gunned down his unarmed victim, and showed no remorse thereafter — then these images would never have existed.

He embarked on his quest to freeze-frame motion after accepting a challenge to prove that horses lifted all four feet off the ground when galloping, but a different sentence at his trial would have left him with both of his own feet in the air, courtesy of the public hangman.

Muybridge’s victim, the glamorous chancer Harry Larkyns, sounds like a character from a cheap bodice-ripper

The story of Eadweard Muybridge — or Edward Muggeridge, as he was originally known before adopting the archaic Old English spelling of his first name — has been explored at length in a fair number of biographies over the past 50 years.

This volume, however, shines the spotlight equally upon the chequered and much-travelled life of the photographer’s hitherto largely unknown victim, Major Harry Larkyns, previously relegated to a shadowy walk-on part in books about the photographer, as if his sole purpose had been to provide a convenient corpse. In fact, as Rebecca Gowers points out in her introduction: ‘Harry lived an extraordinary life, filled with radical changes of circumstance, including three or four stints behind bars, wild romances and knife-edge adventures.’

Historians can be forgiven for having until now concentrated on the world-famous photographic pioneer rather than an itinerant chancer such as Larkyns, teller of tall tales, whose claims to have lived a glamorous, often dangerous, life in Europe and India might simply have been the bar-room inventions of a gifted raconteur.

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