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Profile in the Ottawa Citizen

Poetry in Motion: Local poet Rob Winger's epic portrays the grandfather of moving pictures
The Ottawa Citizen

Sunday, November 25, 2007

In 1877, California businessman and racehorse owner Leland Stanford wanted a bet settled.

Stanford, who would later become governor of California, believed that when a horse was trotting there were times when all four hooves were in midair. The possibility of this, known then as "unsupported transit," ran counter to both popular thought and artistic depictions of the day, which typically showed at least one hoof on the ground.

To prove his point, Stanford sought out British-born San Francisco photographer Eadweard Muybridge, who used a series of 24 electrically triggered cameras lined along a racetrack to record the movement of one of Stanford's horses.

Apart from settling the bet in Stanford's favour, the experiment, along with Muybridge's other work studying animal locomotion, was ground zero upon which the motion picture industry was built, ensuring Muybridge a spot in history far more secure than had he relied solely on his acquittal for the murder of his wife's lover three years earlier.

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In 1995, more than a century after Muybridge's photographic breakthrough, Ottawa poet Rob Winger was taking an undergrad photography class at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B. He saw his first Muybridge print, and it fascinated him.

This past summer, Winger's first book, Muybridge's Horse: A Poem in Three Phases, was released, earning favourable comparisons to Michael Ondaatje's 1970 long poem The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, as well as a shortlist nod for this year's Governor General's Literary Award in the poetry category.

"In retrospect," Winger says, his revelation at Mount Allison "got me working on the project. There was something going on with the fact that these are artistically rendered pictures in a pseudo-scientific setting -- (Muybridge) did it for veterinary science and in the name of chemistry -- and it was all couched in science, while his whole career was couched in being an artist.

"So it's a strange collision."

While a horse's flight may seem seem like child's play today, Muybridge's work at the time was groundbreaking. In her 2003 biography of Muybridge, River of Shadows, author Rebecca Solnit described him as "the man who split the second, as dramatic and far-reaching as the splitting of the atom."

Muybridge's efforts at recording locomotion even led sculptor Auguste Rodin, a contemporary and critic of Muybridge's, and of photography in general, to comment that "it is the artist who is truthful and it is photography which lies, for in reality time does not stop."

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