From Muybridge to the Photojournalist: The Birth of Equestrian Sport Photography

The Horse and the Camera from the Judith and Jo Tartt, Jr. Photography Collection
exhibition on view at the National Sporting Library & Museum through January 7, 2018

Whether you love or hate taking selfies, it is hard to imagine a time before photography and the easy access we now have to the news, sports, and images of them. From the first static images, human imagination has turned the camera towards everything from the epic to the mundane. A breakneck evolution of photography has continued to advance since the first grainy, permanent photographic image was produced circa 1827. Developments saw stiff portraits become sharp-as-a-tack studies of motion within 50 years, and the twentieth century brought the wide-spread distribution of them. The history of the development of equestrian sport photography may be traced with photographs in The Horse and the Camera from the Judith and Jo Tartt, Jr. Photography Collection exhibition on view at the National Sporting Library & Museum through January 7, 2018.

Beginning with the patenting of the tintype, by American innovator Hamilton Smith in 1856, photographic portraiture was quickly popularized across the United States. The medium allowed for the production of an image within minutes and gave rise to itinerant photographers who traveled from town-to-town, capturing affordable portraits of people and their prized possessions such as the horse.

Gentleman and Lady in Carriage
Gentleman and Lady in Carriage, c. 1880, tintype, 6 1/2 x 8 1/2 inches, on loan from the Judith & Jo Tartt, Jr. Photography Collection

It was difficult to produce sharp images with early methods of photography, since they required the sitter to be motionless for extended periods of time. The very nature of the medium dictated that the results were stiff and posed compositions.

How then did we come to really understand what a horse looks like when it is jumping, trotting, or galloping? The immediate answer that might come to mind is the name, Eadweard Muybridge. His 1877-8 series of photographic studies revolutionized the way the world views the horse, other animals, and humans in motion.

Muybridge
Eadweard Muybridge (English, 1830-1904), Horse and Rider, c. 1890, collotype, 19 x 24 1/8 inches, on loan from the Judith & Jo Tartt, Jr. Photography Collection

As the story goes, famed photographer Muybridge was hired by the entrepreneur and horse breeder Leland Stanford, auspiciously to settle a bet about whether or not all four hooves of a galloping horse were simultaneously off the ground at any time during the sequence of the gait. The question was a photographic paradox. In the 1870’s, the medium remained an inherently slow and precise process. How could one reliably capture motion with it?

In response, Muybridge devised an industrious and pioneering setup of twelve large-format glass plate cameras spaced apart (The example above is a later twenty-camera version). He outfitted the cameras with innovative and reliable shutters of his own design, tripwires, and plates coated with an extremely light-sensitive emulsion. The combination made a 1/500th second exposure possible.

The technological breakthrough led to a cascade of other camera and film innovations within the following decades, for both consumer-grade and professional equipment and film.

The first photo-finishes forever changed the way races were decided…

Harness Racing
Harness Race Finish, Roosevelt Raceway, 1945, gelatin silver print, 10 x 8 inches, photo Milton Platnick, Hempstead, Long Island, NY, on loan from the Judith & Jo Tartt, Jr. Photography Collection

The implementation of the wirephoto service nationally by the 1920s made it possible to disseminate notable and newsworthy images across the country with ease…

Cossack Jump
Miss Barbara Worth Performs a Cossack Jump, 1933, gelatin silver print, 7 x 9 inches, photo wire caption: Spectacular Jumps This Girl’s Forte. Miss Barbara Worth not only is prominent in California society, but is known as the owner and trainer of some of the best jumping horses in the state. She does more than train, however– she rides them. This photo shows Miss Worth with shortened stirrups executing a difficult Cossack jump. 6-26-33, on loan from the Judith & Jo Tartt, Jr. Photography Collection

…and the result in the twentieth century was that sports photography overtook illustration.

Pimlico Steeplechase, “Mergler Takes a Spill Off Capital Torch Song,” 1941, gelatin silver print marked with pen, crop marks, and gouache, 9 x 12 5/8 inches, on loan from the Judith & Jo Tartt, Jr. Photography Collection

The history of the development of equestrian sport photography is just one of the many threads that runs through The Horse and the Camera from the Judith and Jo Tartt, Jr. Photography Collection exhibition. The intimate survey is comprised of almost 70 tintypes, photogravures, albumen prints, gelatin silver prints, and collotypes created from the 1870s to the 1960s. Works are on loan from the Judith and Jo Tartt, Jr. Photography Collection of over 150 vintage and antique photographic images. The exhibition is made possible through the generous support of Mr. & Mrs. Charles T. Akre.

To learn more about the exhibition, join us for an Evening with The Horse & the Camera on Friday, September 29, 2017 at 6:30 pm for a reception and exhibition talk. Photography expert Jo Tartt, Jr. and the NSLM’s George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Curator of Art Claudia Pfeiffer will explore how advancements in cameras, black & white film, and stop-motion photography captured human imagination and the horse at rest and in motion. RSVP to ABarnes@NationalSporting.org or 540.687.6542 ext. 25


pfeifferClaudia Pfeiffer has been the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Curator of Art at the National Sporting Library & Museum since the position was underwritten by the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Foundation in 2012. Her primary focus is the research, design, interpretation, writing, and installation of exhibitions. E-mail Claudia at cpfeiffer@nationalsporting.org

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2 Comments

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  1. What a great article about this wonderful exhibit!

    It is amazing where equestrian photography started, and what we have available in today’s equestrian and horse sporting environment.

    These older photos, really took some effort from the people that pursued this as a passion. The bulky equipment, the efforts taken to create some of these studies, the dark room tools. All a labor of love, of the science of photography, and the horse!

    A very interesting read. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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