Essay: ‘I feel that the photograph either creates my body or mortifies it.’ (Barthes, Camera Lucida.) Muybridge’s Images of Women : the creation of feminine fantasy and the mortification of female reality in the origins of photography.


Barthes’ tropes, ‘create’ and ‘mortify’, offer much to the understanding of how the photograph impacts upon the individual body which is its subject, and the bodies which are implied by the subject. Barthes relates these terms to the argument that ‘the photograph is the advent of myself as other,’(Barthes,1980, 12). Barthes’ words are potent because they recognise the damage, in both symbolic and actual terms, that can be inflicted upon this ‘other’ subject through the repeated creation of an ideal or a monstrous figure. The awkward recreation of the self by the photograph was acutely felt by its early subjects. Walter Benjamin describes the early photographer’s studio as ‘a place between execution and representation, between torture chamber and throne room.’ (Benjamin, 1985, 247). Barthes adds to the picture by describing the pseudo-surgical apparatus of the studio photographer which ‘supported and maintained the body in its passage to immobility.’ (1980, 14). Thus in both theory and practice the early days of photography contained an element of dislocating and disturbing bodily recreation that could either elevate or humiliate the subject. In this way, starting with Barthe’s terms, a series of binaries emerge which speak of thought surrounding early photography and which have sustained and developed throughout the 19th and 20th centuries: create/mortify, representation/execution, throne/torture chamber. In short, pleasure/pain, or, more generally life/death. Much work has been done to examine the role of children as early subjects who well fit these antithetic structures, representing both youth and the unstoppable passing of time and so death.1 The photograph for these early consumers hovers achingly between youth captured and youth lost, especially in the case of the popular memento mori photograph. I would like to explore the antitheses which surround 19th century photography not through the figure of the child subject, but through the female subject. The Christian framework in which these 19th century photographers (mostly male) functioned, prepared them to see the female body along the same binaries that had begun to grow out of photographic practice: the female body was desire that led to sin and death. Thus the female body provides an interesting and appropriate metaphor for which to explore the social functions of 19th century photography, as one that occupies the same creative / mortifying space as the studio and the photograph itself. In particular, I will focus upon Muybridge’s representation of women in his work Animal Location, a project which promised to examine even more closely reality through photography and so presents a case to examine the powerful ideologies posed by that, apparently, innocent reality. I will explore the way the photograph can be said to create the subject of woman in the context of the science-spectacle of his photographic endeavour, and the ways in which this recreation can constitute a damage upon the subject. 

In his work, Animal Locomotion, Edweard Muybridge proposes a seemingly scientific study of the female type, amongst many other types. This dealing in types is common to Victorian patterns of thinking, but his particular treatment of the women in these studies, and the aesthetics that he applies to their images, erode at the proposed objectivity and scientific stance of the work.2 Indeed, this speaks much of the interesting cross-over of science and spectacle which fostered the early decades of photographic technology.3 As Keller writes, the cultural climate surrounding Muybridge’s work ‘demanded the real as spectacle’ (2010, 217). This paradox presents some interesting questions but it must also be understood that neither term is discreet. In fact, I would argue, that the ‘real’ of the female body had long been subject to spectacle because of its physically hidden and yet, artistically visible status. Female bodies in the cultural discourse were the stuff of fantasy and myth. Irigary summarises this territory that the female body occupied and the new objectivity that was to be applied to an already non-reality:

 ‘Woman having been misinterpreted, forgotten, variously frozen in show cases, rolled up in metaphors, buried beneath carefully stylized figures, raised up in different idealities, would now become the ‘object’ to be investigated.’ (Irigary, 1985, 144).

 It becomes clear that any proposed study of the female form begins in a troubled and blurred state, probably not recognised by the photographer-scientist who sees as natural the images of women around him and further naturalises those images by presenting the truth through scientific examination of physical movement. These real women, apparently, really support all the fantasy women who have preceded them. There is a wonderful self-defeating contradiction in many of the images which suggest as much. For example, plate 143, entitled, ‘Descending stairs, a cup and saucer in right hand.’, features a model wearing a semi-transparent gown (Brookman, 2010, 298). This gauze defeats the stated scientific purpose of the photograph and makes the measuring board in the background redundant because it blurs the outline of the female form and therefore prevents any proposed measurement. On the other hand, it does not actually cover the woman or hide her naked body from the viewer, in a way that might have suggested the sacrificing of completely accurate scientific discovery to the modesty of the woman pictured. It can only be there as part of an erotic fantasy of the feminine. It supports neither science nor modesty, and exists to tantalise the viewer and to provide him with half-glimpses of both a spectacular science and sex. In fact, it compounds the two as the woman’s body appears as the elusive object of scientific discovery, always threatening to escape the delicate technology and seducing the photographer and the viewer into further queries, discoveries and explorations. The territory of the female body becomes metonymic for scientific discovery and in this way, such discoveries are charged with longing and a desire to see more in ways that are not objective in any sense.

Furthermore, this compounding of the female body and scientific discovery can be seen in the very origins of Muybridge’s project, which suggests that science did not lead to feminine fantasy but that in fact the two concepts occur and develop symbiotically. Whilst Williams, who analyses these images and the fantasies they suppose in her book Hardcore, is comfortable with the idea that scientific discovery turned into a desire to discover the erotic; ‘What began as a scientific impulse to record the “truth” of the body quickly became a powerful fantasy.’ (1999, 41), I would argue that the origins of the project are more complex and intertwined than she supposes. At no point is it clear that scientific discovery is the certain intention of Muybridge’s project, especially when we consider his history as a showman and entertainer. I would argue instead that he provides an increasingly popular scientific aesthetic to a spectacular project which works hard to seduce and titillate the viewer, rather than to add to a body of scientific works. In this way, Muybridge dangerously, and knowingly, purports to tell the truth of women whilst only adding to a long discourse of image fantasies, because this is what his audiences, both male and female, expect and hope to see. His figuring of objective identity is never intended to be such but to appear as such. As Keller says of this scientific gloss, ‘[The photographs] were regularly reordered and otherwise manipulated, resulting in merely the appearance of scientific objectivity.’(Keller, 2010, 224). Such a manoeuvre towards the scientific aesthetic seems likely of a man conscious enough of his public image to alter his name into more unusual forms throughout his life.4 Muybridge’s project managed to create a theatrical show that did not give away its status as fantasy and yet retained the allure of the fantastical, as a reporter for the Photographic News in 1882 makes clear: ‘A new world of sights and wonder was, indeed, opened by photography, which was not less astounding because it was truth itself.’(quoted in Braun, 2010, 226). This claim to truth obscures the theatrical and makes the images rendered by Muybridge particularly powerful and more exciting in the audiences’ minds. William’s link between Muybridge’s work and the 20th century pornographic film holds true under such a dynamic, which, as she argues, offer a similar model of the viewing of sexual pleasure: the pornographic film seeks to show performed sexual pleasure in a way that makes it appear to be authentic and therefore heightens the pleasure of the viewer. Muybridge’s clever application of the scientific status can be seen in the changing titles of plate 73 (Brookman, 2010, 296). In Muybridge’s notebook the images of a naked woman running with her arm covering her face and her hand covering her genitals, is entitled ‘Ashamed’. However, when presented in Animal Locomotion it takes on the title ‘Turning around in surprise and running away.’5 Thus, Muybridge foregrounds the kinetic content and disguises the emotional content of the photograph, but still that emotional content remains. The new title doesn’t seem to describe what is happening in the series – the model’s face is obscured and so we cannot even see a look of surprise, and why the model would need to cover her face and her genitals in order to run, turn and be surprised is unclear. Although we are told that this is merely a chain of actions, we feel that the model is ashamed or something similar, and this is a powerful erotic image which pushes against the surface of scientific objectivity until it ruptures it altogether. This allows the viewer to posit their desire to see as explicitly intellectual and only covertly sexual. Thus the comfort of the viewer is repeatedly privileged and the identity of the woman is repeatedly sacrificed to a fantasy of the feminine. The more truth about the woman these photographs claim to tell, the more they submit her to a fantasy that is nothing of her own making.  

In this way, this fantasy of the feminine prioritises a heterosexual male scientist-voyeur. Indeed, some of Muybridge’s images of women play out the power dynamics of seeing, being seen and exposure in order to further seduce the viewer into a narrative of sexual difference. It has been argued by Williams that these photos construct the notion that Berger describes as, ‘men act and women appear’ (Berger, 1997, 47). Indeed, in some of the photos the women appear to be moving very little. Plate 428 (Brookman, 2010, 281), entitled ‘Inspecting a Slave; White’, presents the case of the exhibition of exhibition in the name of objective inspection or assessment. The series shows one naked woman undressing another woman. This image illustrates a fantasy based around the power games of seeing and being seen which has been further developed by the new motion capturing technology. The woman who is already undressed, seems to be in the powerful position in the drama as she disrobes the other woman, who is presumably the white slave. The act of disrobing another suggests her power over her subject whilst also revealing her powerlessness in relation to the photographer and viewer, who remain clothed in both a literal sense and by the safe divide of lens, camera and projection screen. Muybridge’s audiences no longer have to look at the female figure with the ‘naked eye’, instead the new technology has enhanced the viewer’s position in two ways: one, he is now, as he was when looking at photographs before, free from examination or confrontation when looking, and secondly, it is promised that he will see even more than is available to the naked eye. In this way his sight has become more pervasive and less accountable and therefore more powerful, especially in relation to the subject who has only naked eyes and a naked body and is unable to counter his glance. Thus with this plate, Muybridge exhibits the fantasy of undressing and inspecting those in a less powerful position in a way that makes reference to the viewer’s own position and desire as scientist-voyeur. He has presented us with the spectacle of spectacle as scientific investigation of the body all under the auspices of scientific pursuit of the objective truth. The two female bodies are offered up to the hidden viewer in the same way that the ‘slave’s’ body is offered to the free woman of the drama. Each is examined and seen without chance for objection. The slave has no grounds upon which to resist her master’s inspection and similarly the female form has no grounds to resist inspection and re-viewing by any given viewer once the image is captured in the photograph. Although this is also partly true of any one of Muybridge’s subjects who have agreed to be photographed, male or female, I would argue that the social context of unequal gender structures and the genderised positions of viewer (male) and view (female), alongside the exhibition of the act of inspection, provides a powerful commentary upon the roles defined by the photograph. This imagery and the dynamic that surrounds it, poses the voyeur as powerful, and the exposed, both bodily and photographically, as weak. As can be seen by the break down of scientific purpose in many of his images of women, these roles are most clearly defined and polarised when they are gendered.

In conclusion, Barthes’ terms ‘create’ and ‘mortify’ are useful tropes with which to approach an understanding of the female subject in Muybridge’s work and may also prove useful in regards to other 19th century photographic projects. They can be used to illuminate the political, social and artistic position of the female subject but this understanding must be located within a complex artistic-scientific context. Such a careful location reveals much about the developing status of photography in the 19th century. It can be seen that in some cases, the status of the new medium of photography makes a claim towards the scientific, as opposed to the artful. This claim to reality is key in understanding the particular power of the photograph to create and/or mortify the subject. Whilst Muybridge’s work has the persuasive power of art, it also appears to have the highly-esteemed status of empirical evidence – as Smith says: “The camera will always lie, and the magical status of its deception is different from that of previous mediums.” (Smith, 1998, 4.) This lie should be understood to mean the ‘truth’ of sexual difference in this case, and as such renders the subject far more vulnerable to the ideological discourse surrounding her body. It is also important to understand that this scientific status is not absolute but rather a manipulative piece of theatrical play which excites the viewer and promises to deliver to him or her a sight previously unseen. The scientific desire and the sexual desire to see have been compounded around the body of the female subject in a theatre of science that blurs and combines terms and aesthetics. As such, the photographed science of the woman, is both a symptom and engine for the image discourses which propagated the double-sword of idealisation and enfeeblement. Women were in very real terms stifled and abandoned by this discourse surrounding their bodies which perpetuated their status as property of the patriarch, restricted them to the private sphere and afforded them a narrower range of rights than men. Thus the woman is maintained as subject of but never actor within the public sphere and it is telling that in Muybridge’s photos where we should see the action of his female subjects, instead we see pose. Muybridge’s project stages the unequal dynamic between man and woman, which is epitomised in the unequal dynamic between male photographer and female subject. This staging of inequality may also be true, in varying ways, for other ‘others’ that are exhibited in his work, as Phelan says, ‘…historical inequality makes the contemporary encounter between self and other a meeting of profound romance and deep violence.’ (Phelan, 1993, 4). It is this ‘profound romance’ and ‘deep violence’ which is oddly coupled in these photos of women. Whilst the life of the subject appears to have been captured by the photographer, in fact she has been submitted to a limiting image discourse that pertains to a very real damage upon her body as it is positioned within society.

All writing and research by Madeleine Corcoran, 2011.


1 I am thinking especially of Mavor’s work regarding Lewis Caroll’s photographs of children in her book Pleasures Taken.

2 Muybridge’s project also deals wit’h the types of ‘working class man’, ‘young athlete’, ‘black man’, ‘child’, those with illness or disability and co. In each case, the apparently universal subject is handled in a variety of ways and ideologies are put forward about each. Thus, although I wish to examine his depiction of the female type, because it provides a case with which to examine the position of photography and the photographer in Muybridg’e context, I do not wish to suggest that women above all others were subject to the restrictive ideology of type. Indeed, a similar study could be made about many of these ‘others’ – those with dark skin, or those from the working classes, for example – which play a key role in the developing understanding of the social function of a photograph at the time.

3 As discussed by J Pollard in her lecture ‘The Photographer as the Recorder’ at London College of Communication, 19/1/2011

4 See Braun, 2010, 272.

5 As noted by Ibid. 275.


Primary Texts
Brookman, P. (2010) Eadward Muybridge, London: Tate Publishing.
(1984) The Male and Female Figure in Motion: 60 Classic Photographic Sequences, New York: Dover Publications.
Secondary Texts
Azoulay, A. (2008) The Civil Contract Of Photography, New York: Zone Books.
Barthes, R. (1980) Camera Lucida, London: Vintage.
Benjamin, W. (1931) “A Small History of Photography”, in One Way Street and Other Writings, trans. Jephcot,E. & Shorter,K.  (1985), London: Verso, pp.240-57.
Braun, M. “Animal Locomotion”, pp.272 – 283 in Brookman, P. (2010) Eadward Muybridge, London: Tate Publishin
Irigary, L. (trans.1985) Speculum of the Other Woman, New York: Cornell University Press, available from <
snum=2&ved=0CDMQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q&f=false>  [Accessed 13h April 2011]
Keller, C. (2010) “Magnificent Entertainment: The Spectacular Edweard Muybridge”, pp. 217–228 in Brookman, P. (2010) Eadward Muybridge, London: Tate Publishing.
Mavor, C. (1996) Pleasure Taken: Performances of Sexuality and Loss in Victorian Photographs, London: I.B.Tauris
Phelan, P. (1993) Unmarked: The Politics of Performance,London: Routledge.
Smith, L. (1998) The Politics of Focus: Women, children and nineteenth-century photography, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Wells, L. (ed.) (2003) The Photography Reader, London: Routledge.
         – Lutz & Collins, 1993, “The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes: The            Example of National Geographic.” pp.354-374.
       – Sontag, S. 2003, “Photography within the humanities.” pp.59 – 66
Williams, L. (1999) Hardcore: Power, Pleasure and the Frenzy of the Visible, Berkley CAL: California University Press.

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