This photograph of a 4×400 relay was taken with an I-Phone on the “Pano” setting and then cropped and cleaned in Photoshop.
When Neil Armstrong first stepped onto the moon (July 20, 1969) he said “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” His one small step resulted in a seismic shift in how people viewed the world and their role in shaping it.
The art world has likewise had seismic shifts based on small steps.
Derived from studies for another sculpture, Rodin’s Walking Man simply shows a fragmented male form striding forward. This piece combines a series of fragments so the back leg reflects the first part of the stride and the front leg reflects the second part of the stride. Even though both legs are firmly planted, Rodin’s melding of these sequential moments into one form creates a powerful sense of motion. This sense of motion, combined with the way the surface treatments expose the medium and the art making process, proved revolutionary for Rodin and the rest of the art world.
At about the same time, but an ocean away, Eadweard Muybridge launched his own revolution by using photography to record the minute detail in how a man takes a step. Through his locomotion studies, which eventually produced over 100,000 images of animals and humans in motion, Muybridge initiated a seismic shift in the understanding of vision, the living body, nature, science and art. In addition to forcing artists to reassess the manner in which they depicted movement, Muybridge’s innovative photography techniques also revolutionized how the world viewed photography’s expressive potential.
More than a half century later Alberto Giacometti likewise achieved a watershed moment in his career with his own unique rendition of a walking man. Expressing the loneliness and isolation of the human being in contemporary society, the fragile, elongated striding man is considered one of the most iconic images of post-World War II modern art.
One decade later Richard Long likewise left his mark on the art world simply by walking. In his formative piece A Line Made by Walking, Richard Long walked back and forth across a field until he created a straight line path of trampled grass. A spare black and white photograph documented the piece and launched a lifelong artistic career that focused on impermanence, motion, and relativity. Combining performance and sculpture, and establishing the act of walking as art, this piece is celebrated as a milestone in contemporary art.
I titled this photograph Running Girl in part to play off this tradition. It is not that I believe this photograph is a watershed moment in art history; not at all. Few will ever see, much less think about this photograph. However, this piece did mark an awakening in my own artistic sensibility. The recording of these strides dramatically changed the way I perceive the expressive potential of photography and could offer a completely different way to work.
I have always used photography as a way to document my work. While I have spent long hours in the dark room learning how to dodge and burn, photography was predominately a functional concern in my art making. This photograph, on the other hand, felt more like direct carving with pixels. The natural distortions that occur in a panoramic image discussed in the No Stopping photograph create unique, surprise-filled opportunities parallel to picking through a pile of discarded fieldstones. Since the image is based on the movement of the camera and the movement of the subject, there is no practical way to get the exact image twice. Each image, like each stone, has its own characteristic patterns and coloration. I took dozens of images the day I took this picture, and while most didn’t merit a second look, fragments of a few images begged to be edited and polished. The more I interacted with the image, the more I found to respond to. Photoshop wands became my pneumatic chisels. While the significance of this experience on future work is unknown, it has offered me tremendous food for thought, which isn’t bad, considering it is just a recording of a simple human stride.
Use this opportunity to explore how some of the greatest artists achieved creative breakthroughs by focusing on a seemingly simple and mundane gesture; taking a step. In preparation for the class discussion, you may want ask a student or small group to take intellectual ownership of one of the following pieces and act as the class expert.
- Compare and contrast Auguste Rodin’s St. John the Baptist Preaching (1877) with his Walking Man (1907). Which sculpture do you find visually more intriguing or appealling? The St. John sculpture is realistic and relies on his biblical story. Without the biblical context, Walking Man focuses on the essence and power of the stride. The surface treatment is more impressionistic.
- Building on their understanding of Walking Man, introduce a still photograph of a Muybridge locomotion study of a man walking. Compare the stride of a Muybridge walking man to Rodin’s Walking Man. How many of Muybridge’s images are encapsulated in Rodin’s sculpture? Compare a single, isolated Muybridge’s image to the Walking Man. Which looks more natural or real?
- Introduce Alberto Giacometti’s L’Homme qui marche I (1960). How were the motivations in Rodin’s Walking Man different than Giacometti’s Walking Man. How does Giacometti’s sculpture reflect his times?
- Introduce Richard Long’s A Line Made by Walking (1969). How does Long’s sculpture reflect his art world? To help unpack this you may want to reference a Robert Smithson earthwork, a minimalist piece by Robert Morris, or a performance piece by Joseph Beuys.
- Compare and contrast a Muybridge running or walking sequence with Running Girl. What were the different motivations that inspired these works?