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A MAN Q&A: Weston Naef on Eadweard Muybridge, part one

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The introduction to this MAN ‘Newsmaker’ Q&A with Weston Naef is here. Part one is below. Part two is here. Part three is here.

MAN: Today when we think of Eadweard Muybridge we think of early American photography and of the devices he built and used that led to motion pictures. But I think that for the purposes of your story we should start before Muybridge was interested in any of that, with Muybridge’s arrival in San Francisco in the mid-1850s. Tell us how he started out in San Francisco.

Weston Naef: So, the very first objects in this really remarkable exhibition – remarkable because it has brought together more works by Muybridge or associated with Muybridge than any other exhibition before it — are two documents that reveal Muybridge’s basic instincts. They are broadsides issued by Muybridge in San Francisco when he was there for the first time, between 1855 and 1860. These broadsides advertised books and works of graphic art that Muybridge published in San Francisco, books and graphic works that were first published elsewhere, but that had his name on them as publisher on the West Coast. [Image: Unknown photographer, possibly Silas Selleck, Eadweard J. Muybridge, about 1869. Collection MFA Boston.]

At the outset we learn from objects on view here at the Corcoran that in San Francisco in the 1850s Muybridge was a publisher and bookseller, not a writer, artist or photographer. He was not an originator of what he published: He bought rights from other publishers to reissue books and prints in San Francisco. He had a talent for acquiring the publishing rights to items first published elsewhere and then reprinting and selling them in San Francisco. It’s important to Muybridge’s biography to understand his basic instincts — that he was an entrepreneur before he was a creator of writing or a creator of pictures.

MAN: Then in about 1860, Muybridge leaves California and returns to the country of his birth and to London, where he lives from late 1860 to 1866 or so. Fill us in on what he did in London.

WN: Before leaving San Francisco he sold his enterprise there to his brother and with money in his pockets headed to the East Coast on a Butterfield Stage. On route he was subjected to a stagecoach accident that greatly affected his life. He received a head injury from which he’d recover for the next four or five years.  Muybridge is soon found in London, sometime in late 1860. In research published by [Corcoran and exhibition curator Philip Brookman], Muybridge is recorded as being a patentee of a new kind of clothes-washing machine and a new method of printing with ink on paper. What’s interesting about both of these patents is that they’re in very different fields. They require quite different types of scientific and technical expertise, training that Muybridge lacked. [Image: Cover of Corcoran catalogue.]

So the question is: How could Muybridge have gained the expertise that would have allowed him to essentially invent a new kind of clothes-washing machine or acquire the expertise to have also patented a new form of printing? There are no documents that give the answer, but typical of his time, he would have bought the rights from others who did invent them, experts who were technically proficient in those respective issues. He no doubt bought the rights with the plan of exploiting the potential of those two new things.

Moreover, Philip Brookman reports that Muybridge was among the directors of a British-owned, Nevada silver-mining company and of the newly formed Bank of Turkey. What these four items – the clothes-washing machine patent, the printing press patent, the mining investment and the bank directorship — what they have in common is that these are the activities of entrepreneurs or investors, of people deploying capital to move forward rather than being on the front line of creating or inventing.

Also, at this point in London there seems to be no documentation that Muybridge was interested in art or in photography. This raises the question: When did Muybridge learn the fussy procedures of photography — to operate a camera, and to mix the chemicals required to coat and sensitize a glass plate in the field, and to develop the plate in a tent nearby afterward, and then to make prints from the negatives with nothing but the sun as catalyst? When did he become a photographer?  It typically took other photographers several years of practice to master the steps required for world-class accomplishment.

This issue is one of the unsolved mysteries of Muybridge’s biography that the exhibition and the accompanying book fail to adequately address. Curator-author [Brookman] makes the case that Eadweard Muybridge must have learned photography in London, because when he arrived back in San Francisco in late 1867, Muybridge listed himself in the San Francisco City Directory as a “landscape photographer, doing business at “415 Montgomery Street.” However, there is no evidence through exhibitions or in photographic societies’ membership lists that Muybridge was involved in photography when he was in London for those prior years. If he had been active to the point of becoming a world-class master he certainly would have been on exhibition lists or on the rosters of the photography societies there.

So, when Muybridge was in London in the 1860s, the facts show that one of his talents was to deploy his capital to acquire assets in hopes the investments would turn a profit.  When Muybridge returned to San Francisco, it stands to reason that he would follow the same pattern: spend money to acquire assets in the hope they would be profitable. [Image: Wm. Vick, Eadweard Muybridge, date unknown. Collection of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.]

MAN: By somewhere around 1867 or 1868 Muybridge is back in San Francisco, going back into business as a publisher. And through this point, there is still no record of him having learned how to take pictures, let alone really good ones, right?

WN: That’s right. An important document regarding Muybridge’s relationship to photography is the note he wrote to the Mercantile Society Library directors on May, 14, 1868, where he signs his name as Eadweard J. Muybridge and where he refers to photographs of Yosemite Valley as being “published by me.” I think it’s very telling that in this early document, written in the first person voice, Muybridge refers to photographs of Yosemite Valley as  “published by me.” Not taken by me, “published by me.”

He identified the photographs he published with the word “Helios” inscribed in the negatives. One explanation for the use of the pseudonym “Helios” could have been to remain anonymous. All he needed on the picture was an identifying mark to establish ownership of an asset (the negative) that had been acquired as an investment from its maker (who relinquished all rights) in the hope of profiting from the sale of prints in the same way he did business reprinting books and engravings created by others in San Francisco in the 1850s.

Wall two of the exhibition is installed with a group of stereographs of exceptional quality visually and technically.  Each of the stereographs has the word “Helios” inscribed in t he negative and all are dated in the exhibition to before 1870.  Based on the ‘Helios’ inscriptions authorship of these stereographs has been traditionally given to Muybridge. There is no other documentation to establish their authorship. However, on wall three we find a group of photographs made with a different camera, one that exposed negatives 8 1/2-by-5 1/2 inches in size, known as a “half-plate” because the negatives were approximately one half the size of a whole-plate camera designed to expose 10-by-8 inch negatives. The half-plate Yosemite pictures with “Helios” inscribed are stylistically different from the stereographs bearing the same mark on wall two and elsewhere in the exhibition, which raises the question of whether the same eye could have conceived both groups of pictures?

That raises another real issue: Was Muybridge a master of photography in 1868? Was he able to make technically perfect pictures and to compose them in a word-class fashion on the day he arrived back in San Francisco? If we say ‘yes’ to that question, then the conclusion is that Muybridge must have learned the craft of photography in London. But, returning to the facts, there is no evidence whatsoever that he practiced photography in London. There isn’t a single surviving photo with his name on it or attributed to him of any British or European subject! Moreover, his name isn’t on membership lists of photographic societies or found in any exhibition lists, so it seems highly unlikely, contrary to current understanding, that Muybridge could have learned photography to the point of mastery while he was in London.

Consider this fact: To become a world-class expert in photography such as is demonstrated in the stereographs on wall two and elsewhere in the exhibition dated to before 1871 would have required the experience gained from having made hundreds if not the thousands of pictures, all of which would have to have been made in England.  Following the precedent set by other world class photographers of his time, Muybridge would have had to practice photography a few hours every day for several years to achieve the mastery shown in the stereographs that have ‘Helios’ inscribed in the negatives. This opens the question of whether Eadweard Muybridge himself actually created the negatives for those pictures, or whether he bought the negatives from other photographers. It seems to me that unless he learned the elements of photography in London and practiced photography there every day for several years, he would not have arrived back in California in 1867 with the skills necessary to be a world-class master of this art.

Continued in part two and in part three…

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  1. […] discusses why Muybridge’s early oeuvre should be re-examined. (The first part of our Q&A is published here.) Naef’s argument is particularly focused around Muybridge’s career as a businessman, […]

  2. […] Art Notes has an interview with Getty Museum curator emeritus of photographs Weston Naef that lays out reasons why pre-1872 […]

  3. Thanks. Illuminates necessity of demystification
    process re: authenticity. So many of us first seeing
    Muybridge’s horse assumed the connection. Weston Naef,
    who is ‘ Helios ?’

  4. […] the famous “Helios” photographs conventionally attributed to Muybridge? Read on, at ARTINFO, via Tyler Green’s Modern Art Notes. Print, Subscribe, add to Favourites, Tweet and […]

  5. […] in 1868, such a “world-class” photographer with so little background in the medium. The three-part online interview casts doubt on much of Muybridge’s achievement, with little evidence other than Naef’s […]

  6. au pair says:

    thx for your article

  7. […] and mammoth-plate photographs up to about 1872, should be re-attributed to Watkins. [See the interview with Naef, and Brookman’s response]. Rebecca Solnit has now moved to Muybridge’s defense in the pages of […]

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