Born 167 years ago today, Thomas Cowperthwait Eakins, the Man Who Introduced the Camera to the American Art Studio was an American photographer, realist painter, sculptor, and fine arts educator. He is widely acknowledged to be one of the most important artists in American art history.
Eakins has been credited with having “introduced the camera to the American art studio” (Rosenheim, Jeff L., “Thomas Eakins, Artist-Photographer, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art”, Thomas Eakins and the Metropolitan Museum, page 45. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1994). During his study in Europe, he was exposed to the use of photography by the French realists, though the use of photography was still frowned upon as a shortcut by traditionalists. In the late 1870s he was introduced to the photographic motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge, particularly the equine studies, and became interested in using the camera to study sequential movement. He performed his own motion studies, usually involving the nude figure, and even developed his own technique for capturing movement on film. Where Muybridge’s system relied on a series of cameras triggered to produce a sequence of individual photographs, Eakins preferred to use a single camera to produce a series of exposures on one negative.
Eakins’ so-called “Naked Series”, which began in 1883, were nude photos of students and professional models which were taken to show real human anatomy from several specific angles, and were often hung up and displayed for study at the school. Later, less regimented poses were taken indoors and out, of men, women, and children, including his wife. The most provocative, and the only ones combining males and females, were nude photos of Eakins and a female model.
In all, about eight hundred photographs are now attributed to Eakins and his circle, most of which are figure studies, both clothed and nude, and portraits. No other American artist of his time matched Eakins’ interest in photography, nor produced a comparable body of photographic works.