Hero in his own movie

The photographic pioneer Eadweard Muybridge’s meditations on the human body inspired the wildest ima

There is a celebrated photograph of Eadweard Muybridge, sitting on top of Contemplation Rock in Yosemite Park, California, in 1872. Muybridge, seen in silhouette with his Darwinian beard and backwoodsman's hat, is seemingly balanced on the edge of the world and looking down into the abyss. At the time, the photo­grapher, now the subject of a compelling retrospective at Tate Britain, was on the verge of many things. He was about to invent the motion camera that made his name; he was also about to become a father and to discover both his fate and his vocation.

But, for the time being, in Yosemite, Muybridge was doing what he did best: he was alone in the American wilderness, capturing on his patented photographic plates some of the most startling images ever published of the still New World: great redwoods and waterfalls, towering canyons and Native Americans clinging on to their homeland. Even in a state of chancers and eccentrics, Muybridge cut a striking figure.

“As we slowly climbed the trail," one traveller in Yosemite noted, "a long line of pack mules met us. We drew aside to let them pass. They were loaded with a photographer's apparatus: lenses, plates, cameras, carefully packed boxes of chemicals . . . Their owner, Mr Muybridge, had just established himself in the valley for the purpose of taking views, larger and more perfect than any heretofore attempted." Muybridge was growing into the mythology he had conceived for himself: he was redeveloping himself as a frontiersman.

Muybridge's odyssey to this particular edge had been a circuitous one. He had grown up Edward Muggeridge, in Kingston upon Thames, and first came to America in 1852, aged 22, to seek his fortune as an agent for a publishing company. A decade later, having settled in the west, he was travelling in a stagecoach when it left the road and hit a tree. Muybridge was left unconscious, and when he came to, he seemed someone else entirely. He returned to England to recuperate, found himself a new name, became the director of a Turkish investment bank and successfully applied for a couple of patents: one for a new kind of washing machine, and the other for a printing process. By the time he returned to California, he had a new mission: photography. With a growing sense of his own mythology, he called his portable laboratory Helios, the flying studio, and took himself off in search of the sublime.

The Tate show traces this journey into the unknown in comprehensive detail. You can see Muybridge's singular understanding of his medium growing with each passing assignment: to photograph the Modoc tribe for the US military, to catalogue the lighthouses of the west coast for the US Light-House Board.

But as well as having an eye for photography, Muybridge always had an eye to the main chance. The studies for which he is best known came as a result of his growing notoriety in San Francisco, and the patronage extended to him by the robber barons of Nob Hill. Muybridge's journey out west had been foreshadowed by the building of the Great Pacific Railroad, from which most of those patrons had made their fortune, and that he had documented. When the plutocrat Leland Stanford wanted to settle a bet, Muybridge was the man he sent for.

Stanford, who became both senator and governor of California, and founded the eponymous university at Palo Alto, had a passion for racehorses, in particular his prize thoroughbred Occident. He wanted to prove that when Occident ran, all four of its legs left the ground at the same instant.Muybridge undertook to devise a system whereby the horse's motion could be broken down into its constituent elements. Using a complicated mechanism of tripwires and a battery of cameras, Muybridge not only settled Stanford's bet, but also ushered in a future of "motion pictures".

It is easy to imagine that this triumph, of being the first man who could stop time and unspool it at whim, exaggerated the hubris that attached to Muybridge's self-image. In any case, it is easy enough to build from it a psychological profile for the act that defined the second half of his life. For much of his short marriage, he had been away on adventures and his wife, Flora, had taken to "attending the theatre" with a local dandy, Major Harry Larkyns. Muybridge discovered the extent of this theatre-going when, appropriately enough, he came across a photograph of his baby son Floredo Helios, on the back of which, apparently, were inscribed the words "Little Harry", in his wife's handwriting.

In later accounts of what happened next, it seemed that Muybridge stepped into the slowed-down time of what we would recognise as a western movie. He took a gun and tested it with the kind of meticulous preparation that he used for his photographic shoots. He caught a train to Calistoga, in Napa County, and the Yellow Jacket Mine, where he had discovered Larkyns to be staying. And he knocked on a saloon bar door. It was reported in court that "Larkyns came to the hallway and advanced to the front door, and when within a few feet of it, Muybridge stepped into the full light and said: 'I have brought a message from my wife, take it,' and at the same time fired. The wounds proved fatal almost immediately."

At the murder trial, Muybridge first entered a plea of insanity, and the pictures of him sitting on top of Contemplation Rock were produced in evidence. Much was made of the blow to his head that had precipitated his photographic experiments. Against the judge's express directions, the jury, swayed perhaps by the nar­rative that had been offered, acquitted him on the grounds not of madness, but of "justifiable homicide". He was the last man in America to receive that verdict.

Having escaped the possibility of doing time (or worse), Muybridge seemed compelled thereafter to attempt to exercise his will over it. Flora died not long after the trial ended; Floredo was placed in the care of an orphanage. And, after travelling to Panama and Guatemala, Muybridge threw himself into what became his life's work - the obsessive chronicling of "human and animal locomotion". There was a clear scientific impulse behind this but, given Muybridge's history, it is hard not to see it also as an exercise in complicated alienation. A man whose emotional past lay in fragments spent his days instructing naked men and women to perform simple human tasks and compulsively cataloguing the results.

The results of that visual investigation remain eerily fascinating; they have been a direct in­fluence on the wilder imaginings of artists ever since - referenced explicity as dislocated visions by Marcel Duchamp and Francis Bacon, and always subliminally present in the efforts of futurists and cubists to understand the human figure as fluid rather than static. For the Victorians, the attraction of Muybridge, as he embarked on public lecture tours in the 1880s - before his technology was rendered obsolete by Thomas Edison and the Lumière brothers - was his fairground ability to project motion with his magic lanterns. And yet, looking at the Tate selection of 12,000 of these images now, it is their fragmentary stillness that seems their defining quality. Though they concentrate on humanity, they aspire to abstraction.

Like all scientific men of his age, Muybridge was deeply aware of the implications of The Origin of Species, and his pictures can be read as a demonstration of that understanding. He called his motion camera the "zoopraxiscope", and the abiding impression of the "films" is of a human menagerie, collated and ordered, able-bodied and crippled, reduced to its essential nature. The self-portraits - Muybridge naked, wielding pickaxes and hefting rocks - look revealing in ways he might not have recognised. By watching his nudes ascending staircases, or wrestling, and placing them beside zoo creatures, elephants and baboons, he seemed always to be articulating, consciously or not, a deeper disquiet. Frozen in time and space, locked in to their habits of musculature, bodies never looked so estranged, nor so mortal.

Tim Adams is the New Statesman's art critic

“Eadweard Muybridge" is at Tate Britain, London SW1, until 16 January 2011