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Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

A MAN Q&A: Weston Naef on Muybridge, part three

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Continued from Monday and this morning: I introduced MAN’s June Newsmaker Q&A with Weston Naef. Part one. Part two.

MAN: So it sounds to me like you’re coming close to saying that all of the work attributed to Eadweard Muybridge before about 1872ish ought to be re-examined with other attributions in mind, especially Watkins? Or is that off by a little bit?

WN: Well, 1872 is the year we know that Muybridge had sufficient mastery of photography to have created the 51 mammoth plate pictures that bear his name.  It appears that Muybridge was still learning the elements of photography between 1868 and 1871.  To illustrate this, well, let’s return to the 1867 half-plates that are on ‘wall three’ in the Corcoran’s exhibition.

Wall three has several pictures that have the word ‘Helios’ inscribed in plates made with a camera that exposed negatives about 5.5 by 8.5 inches. The word ‘Helios’ is inscribed in these, but the puzzling thing is that the half-plate negatives are very uneven [quality-wise]. They are clumsy by comparison to the stereographs with “Helios”  dated in the exhibition labels to the year before or the year after, on the nearby walls. All but two of the half-plate negatives (as well as smaller copies of them published by Hittel in his Yosemite guidebook) are truly clumsy in their composition and their technique is imperfect.

Two of the half-plates on that wall, Piwyack, (Cataract of Stars;) “Vernal Fall,” 450 feet tall (4054), 1867 (above) and Summit of Third Fall of the Yosemite [4035], 1867 [both from the collection of Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University], are very closely related to Watkins pictures. One is the same viewpoint looking toward Vernal Fall with two trees to the right of center, a camera position that Watkins discovered first and made famous between 1859 and 1861. Coincidentally, both of these lack the word ‘Helios’ inscribed in the negatives and thus lack evidence of any association with Muybridge. It appears the maker of these half-plates was someone who had access to the only half-plate camera known to have been in Yosemite in 1867: That’s the Josiah Whitney survey camera, and it was known to have been  operated by two people: Carleton Watkins, who made 24 of the negatives that were published  in Whitney’s Yosemite Book in the form of mounted albumen prints. A handful of these were credited to a man named, “E. Harris,” and this mysterious E. Harris is the only other person known to have operated the Whitney half-plate camera in 1867.

This is admittedly speculative, but it leads to a ‘what if’ question, ‘What if Mr. E. Harris made the half-plate photographs that were eventually issued with the word ‘Helios’ inscribed on the negatives?’ In this case Muybridge could have acquired these following the method he had already proven, as we saw earlier when he was buying the rights to pre-existing patents, prints and books. He may now have entered into a new area of entrepreneurship of buying negatives. He’d then establish his ownership over them by inscribing ‘Helios,’ thus gaining clear title to the property. (This would not have been new: The way in which a publisher gained clear title to an engraving or lithograph was to put an identifying mark in the plate, block or stone.)

There’s another interesting note about the mysterious Mr. Harris: He was described in a letter between two of the Whitney survey party members as being a “scoundrel.” That leads to the further question: ‘Why E. Harris would have been considered a scoundrel?’ Maybe he’d done something quite inappropriate — such as using the Whitney Survey camera and then selling some of the negatives to Muybridge.

MAN: The next gallery in the Corcoran exhibition is pictures from Alaska?

WN: The Alaska pictures. Again, these have been dated to 1868. They are of superlative quality artistically and technically. So that brings us back to this nasty, imponderable question of when did Muybridge learn photography and how long did it take him to become a world-class master? If he arrived back in California from England in late 1867, and became a “publisher” of photographs as he said in his note to the Mercantile Society library directors (“I hope you will take a close look at the photographs I have published…”), would he have been in Alaska and made these pictures? Adding to this mystery is the fact that the geographer, George Davidson, who was Watkins’ friend and client, and a great believer in the utility of photography for his work, was in Alaska more than a year before Muybridge’s proposed travel there.  Given Davidson’s persistent use of photographs as evidence in other places, there’s no explanation for why Davidson would not have followed his own past methodology and included a photographer in his survey of Alaska as he had with his visits to other geographically notable places where he worked.

I don’t know. Muybridge being in Alaska in 1868 is problematic. Whoever made the pictures in Alaska that came to have the word ‘Helios’ inscribed in the negatives was a master of the highest order—they are spectacular compositionally and visually. When I say problematic, it all hinges on when and where Muybridge would have learned photography, and whether he could have acquired the negatives from their maker and marked them ‘Helios’, as he did with other works he published. And as I said before, there simply is no evidence Muybridge practiced photography when he was in England between 1860 and 1866. That is the only scenario that would open the possibility that he could have made pictures of the quality we see in the exhibition dated to 1867 and 1868.

MAN: On many of Muybridge’s stereographs we see the phrase, “illustrated by Muybridge.” Could that be a key, a hint a tip-off? As I recall, you noticed that “illustrated by Muybridge” seems to be the phrase he used on the questionable stereographs and so on.

WN: Yes, I drew attention to that point when you and I walked through the Corcoran’s exhibition because it is indeed peculiar. To use the word ‘illustrated’ is a kind of euphemism. It’s not the same as saying, “I made this.” It’s the kind of it’s the kind of phrase that relates more to the process of editing something or publishing something. Using the phrase “illustrated by” seems to be avoiding the issue of whether the statement, ‘I made this,’  is the truth. Previous to now, almost all experts who have studied Muybridge stereographs have interpreted the statement ‘illustrated by’ as ‘I made this.’ But I am now beginning to doubt whether this is the correct interpretation.

MAN: So what about the Corcoran’s room of Yosemite Valley mammoth plate pictures in particular? It’s an exceptionally stunning, striking, awe-inspiring gallery, full of oh-my-god-level pictures. All but one of them are presented as Muybridges.

WN: So, when it comes to the question of who made the mammoth-plate pictures that were published by Bradley & Rulofson in 1872, all of them are marked with letterpress on the mounts in such a way that Muybridge was saying unambiguously, “I made this,” and there are no stylistic or other reasons to doubt that assertion. Muybridge operated the camera for at least 50 of the 51 mammoth plate Yosemite pictures with the name of Bradley & Rulofson also on their mounts. The interesting question is whether Watkins could have been standing nearby coaching him, since in 1872 Muybridge was still something of a novice at operating the very large camera. At least 40 of the 51 were made from camera positions that Watkins had discovered and returned to numerous times. Just a dozen or so were made with the camera in entirely new positions, which shows Muybridge was trying hard to discover new and original viewpoints for the big camera, but he was not able to do so in every instance.

MAN: Can you put into context how much this would change the story of early American photography?

WN: That’s a really good question because the issue that has been overlooked by almost all historians is the incredible leadership and mentoring role Watkins played in the history of photography in California.

He was a genius who created vastly more pictures than anyone else in California of his time:  More than 1,400 mammoth-plate pictures, 5,000 stereographs, as well as dozens upon dozens of daguerreotypes. He had a 40-year career. He was the first photographer in America to use a very large camera and created hundreds of pictures with it up and down the Pacific Coast — about a quarter of which were made in places accessible only on foot or horseback. This kind of intrepid commitment to photography inspired one of his contemporaries on the Whitney survey to call Watkins ‘The Immortal One.’

So the most important thing about the Corcoran’s Muybridge exhibit — and also the recent Timothy O’Sullivan exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum — is that the names of both of the other photographers are to most people today, even to most experts, better known that that of Watkins, whose body of work in quality and quantity is awesome.

MAN: Do you think it likely that we’re looking at a wave of re-attributions away from Muybridge and toward Watkins and possibly others, a re-consideration of a key period of the history of photography in America?

WN: I think that it’s in part the stereographs that would seem to be most open to reattribution, yes. The Yosemite half-plates I think show great potential [for same], as well as those mammoth plate photographs that are on the mounts of Thomas Houseworth & Co. with no indication of who made the negatives, some of which having been attributed over the years to Muybridge based on very little evidence, must also be reconsidered, I think.

A total of 51 pictures were published by Bradley & Rulofson with Muybridge’s name on the mounts. What we know for certain is that Muybridge claimed authorship of those 51 pictures.  They are the most important evidence for the style and character of Muybridge’s vision before the animal locomotion pictures with which he is most frequently identified today. Those 51 pictures published by Bradley & Rulofson should be studied carefully for their stylistic attributes and should be compared item-for-item with images that were made in some of the very same places by Watkins. When this is done I predict Watkins will be proven to be considered Muybridge’s mentor. Art history is all about how the baton of invention is passed from one artist to another. I think in the future a published catalogue of all 51 of Muybridge’s 1872 mammoth plates needs to be prepared and the same for the more than 70 mammoth plate photographs published by Thomas Houseworth & Co. that have not yet been analyzed as to who could have made the negatives. These tools will be essential to get to the next level of understanding regarding mammoth plate photography in California.

Philip Brookman and the several collaborators in the Muybridge project, including Marta Braun, Corey Keller, Rebecca Solnit, Andy Grundberg, left many unanswered questions regarding Muybridge’s development as an artist, but they created a book and exhibition that is a feast for the eyes and full of food for thought.

Tomorrow: Corcoran curator Philip Brookman.

Related: Introducing MAN’s June Newsmaker Q&A with Naef. Part one. Part two. I play detective and find a Watkins-Muybridge too.

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  1. Weston Naef says:

    To see the comparable Watkins picture referred to above,readers should go to http://www.CarletonWatkins.org. Once there go to “Stereo Catalog” then enter 22 in the search box. The Watkins stereograph no. 22 (Piwyac, or the Vernal Fall, 300 Feet) dating from 1859-1861 is closely related to the view reproduced above identified in the Corcoran exhibition as the work of Muybridge. The use of two trees to the right of center to anchor the composition was Watkins’invention. If Muybridge did actually make the negative for the 1867 half-plate picture on view, then he did so with direct reference to Watkins’ prior treatment of the same subject.

  2. Keith Stern says:

    We can examine photographs attributed to Muybridge for his physical presence. Muybridge stereo #114, a very early Yosemite shot, shows a box with “Helios” written on it. #340, a very early street scene of San Francisco, shows Helios Flying Studio wagon. Going by the numbering scheme, not to mention stylistic reasons, these photos seem to precede the Alaska series beginning 459, and even the 1868 earthquake scenes beginning 445. It seems clear that Helios (Muybridge) was an active photographer well before 1868.

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