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Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

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

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Continued from Monday, when I introduced MAN’s June Newsmaker Q&A with curator and scholar Weston Naef. Part one is here. Part three is here.

MAN: That question, about whether Eadweard Muybridge  could have returned to California in 1867 or 1868 with the skills to be a world-class artist, brings us back to the first galleries of the Corcoran exhibition. Suddenly, in 1867 and 1868 we get the stereographs and a couple of other works that open the Corcoran’s retrospective. As I understand it, in the year or so since your retirement from the J. Paul Getty Museum you’ve been spending a lot of time with Carleton Watkins’ stereographs from this same period. While you were reading the Muybridge catalogue you discovered some surprises.

Weston Naef: Yes. I was studying the catalogue and discovered on page 57, figure number 41 an [1872] image of the laying of the cornerstone of the San Francisco City Hall. [Image above: Grand Masonic Ceremony Laying the Cornerstone of the City Hall and Law Courts, 1872. Collection of California Historical Society, Virginia M. Storti Collection. Special thanks to the Corcoran for making this image available.] On the exhibition label and book captions Muybridge is listed as the maker of the work, but in fact we know the stereo negative is by Carleton Watkins, whose authorship is chronicled on the CarletonWatkins.org website, where we see that an Old Series stereograph No. 1614 is known to have been from a negative by Watkins. [See below, click here for full-screen version.] This raises the question of Muybridge’s possible routine use of negatives by Watkins and other photographers during the period when he could have been learning the  craft of photography in California. This matter merits further examination. I do not think that we will find this case to be an isolated example. I predict that list of photographs from negatives Muybridge acquired from other photographers will prove to be lengthy.

MAN: And this led you back to other stereographs?

WN: Yes. I started looking carefully at all the stereographs in the exhibition dated to before 1872 to determine whether any of them could be found to have further association with Watkins or any other photographers and what I have discovered is that especially on ‘wall two’ of the exhibition — if ‘wall one’ consists of the broadsides –  ‘wall two’ merited more examination. It has four of the most spectacular stereographs that have ‘Helios’ inscribed in the negatives. These are works of definite world-class quality, including ‘The Woodchopper From Behind’ [titled in the exhibition 'The Astonished Woodchopper'], but most importantly, each of those pictures has elements that can be found in other Carleton Watkins stereographs. My prediction is that once the entire Carleton Watkins catalogue of stereographs is studied carefully, paying close attention to the gaps in numbering of Watkins’ series where there is a title for a work and a number in a sequence of the stereographs, but oddly no image has been recorded despite ten years or more of work by scholars and experts, my expectation is that there will be matches found between missing Watkins stereographs and many of the 1867-1871 pictures attributed to Muybridge.

It seems very likely that when Muybridge returned to San Francisco in 1867 that he would have acquired — in the same way he acquired patents and the rights to publish books — he would have used the same kind of method to establish himself in a new business in San Francisco, and that new business would have been as a publisher of photographs rather than as a maker of them. There is no evidence for how in 1868 he could have gained the mastery required to make many of the exceptional small works that are on view in the first several galleries.  The mystery remains:  When did Muybridge perform the 10,000 hours of practice in photography that people who are involved in studying the psychology of learning believe is required to become a world-class master in any subject?

MAN: Gaps in Watkins’ stereographic record appear to be critical here. It’s those gaps that you think may be missing because Watkins sold the rights to or licensed (or whatever the appropriate 19thC term would be) to Muybridge. Can you give us a quick explanation of what stereographic numbering was, and by extension why it is critical to your theory?

WN: Stereographs were among the very first photographs to fit what we generally think of as published works, as works that exist in more than one copy destined for sale to the public. [Photographers typically had] a numbered catalogue from which people – that is, vendors or collectors – could order the stereographs.

So item No. 1 in the list of almost 5,000 stereos that Carleton Watkins created over about 40 years of time is assigned to a work titled, Starting Out, and the picture represents a group of horseback riders posed in a meadow in Yosemite Valley, in the vicinity of Yosemite Falls. (The later  paper versions of the same picture bear the less evocative title, Yosemite Falls.) The sequence tells us that this picture is at the beginning of Watkins’ work in Yosemite Valley.  Based on an engraving we believe it was made before the fall of 1859.

MAN: How many of Watkins’ 5,000 stereographs have been matched to where they fit in the sequence?

WN: I think that approximately 3,000 have the images have been found and are chronicled on the website CarletonWatkins.org, which is a remarkable public resource. About 1,000-2,000 are missing and it appears at this point that Watkins sold hundreds of negatives to other photographers. He sold or traded them to others who issued them over their own names without crediting him, including E. & H.T. Anthony in New York and Benjamin W. Kilburn in Vermont and,  now we find, apparently Muybridge, who was Watkins’ good friend.

MAN: Such a Muybridge-Watkins transaction or transactions would not be anomaly, right? There is documented evidence that they had a long-standing professional relationship.

WN: Right. In 1858 in his San Francisco bookstore, Muybridge expressed his admiration for Watkins by exhibiting in his bookstore a mammoth-plate print Watkins made looking west from Telegraph Hill toward the Golden Gate. We know about the fact Muybridge displayed it from favorable comments published on the occasion in the Alta California newspaper. [Image: Carleton Watkins, Golden Gate from Telegraph Hill, San Francisco. Year unknown. The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, via Calisphere.]

The early close friendship between Watkins and Muybridge is also evidenced when Watkins wrote a collector named Henry Laurencil in 1859. The letter said that Laurencil could pay a substantial amount of money owed Watkins to either Watkins or to Muybridge. So Watkins and Muybridge were well-known to each other long before Muybridge returned to San Francisco in 1867. This close working relationship between Watkins and Muybridge cannot be underestimated and should be taken into consideration  when analyzing the later work Muybridge did in 1872 and regarding motion studies for which he became world famous.

MAN: There are a number of reasons Watkins might have kept certain stereographs and other images and published, sold and/or distributed them under his name, while selling the rights to other images for publishers to sell explicitly not under his name. One of course is the desire or need to make extra money. But there are other reasons, I presume?

WN: Let’s look at a 19th-century artist through the lens of people living in the 21st century and what we know is the behavior pattern of all kinds of artists: In order to stand out, artists typically choose a specific perspective or viewpoint to establish an identity. With his Yosemite pictures in particular, Watkins elected to identify with an interpretation of Yosemite Valley as a pre-Edenic paradise. Remember, he was one of the first visitors there and he understood the magical spell that this beautiful place cast on anyone who visited there. In at least the first five or six years of his time photographing Yosemite, Watkins persistently eliminated any figures from his views of wild nature. He seems to have deliberately excluded figures in all but a handful of his mammoth plate Yosemite views.

But we know from the total body of Carleton Watkins’ mammoth plate work made in places other than Yosemite that he frequently included not just individuals, but large groups of people. He was a master of orchestrating scenes in front of hotels, railroad stations, mines, factories and such that were heavily populated. Also, many of his stereographs are definitely figurative.

It seems that because Watkins first established his identity as someone who was seeing California as a virginal palace, he would have been more willing to part with those [Yosemite] pictures that had figurative elements. Remember, Watkins made many stereographs that were highly figurative: A Fourth of July celebration in 1863, crowds of people in San Francisco in an open square, crowds at the launching of a vessel,   Moreover, Watkins built up an entire body of work of figurative landscape. There’s a common misconception that Watkins was anti-figurative and one of the things that we believe — or believed – that began to distinguish the Muybridge work was the inclusion of figures, especially in the 1872 Yosemite  mammoth plate pictures, where the most notable difference between the work of  Watkins’ and that of Muybridge is the inclusion of a single figure in many of the pictures.

Continued in part three.

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  1. [...] was of the river Huisne in 1858, known today as “River Scene, France”. (Not for Silvy the 10,000 hours of practice that Weston Naef says is necessary to become world class.) [...]

  2. [...] Silvy had taken up photography in 1857 to document his travels, his most well-known photograph was of the river Huisne in 1858, known today as “River Scene, France”. (Not for Silvy the 10,000 hours of practice that Weston Naef says is necessary to become world class.) http://blogs.artinfo.com/modernartnotes/2010/06/a-man-qa-weston-naef-on-eadweard-muybridge-part-two/ [...]

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