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Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

MAN Q&A with Muybridge curator Philip Brookman

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More in MAN’s weeklong series: I introduced MAN’s June Newsmaker Q&A with Weston Naef. Part one. Part two. Part three.

Philip Brookman is the director of curatorial affairs of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the curator of “Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change.” His recent exhibitions include “Sally Mann: What Remains,” “Robert Frank: London/Wales,” “Emmet Gowin: Changing the Earth,” “Media/Metaphor: The 46th Biennial Exhibition,” and “Half Past Autumn: The Art of Gordon Parks.” [Image: Eadweard Muybridge, Falls of the Yosemite, From Glacier Rock. (Great Grizzly Bear). 2600 feet fall. No. 36, 1872. Collection of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.]

MAN: Could Eadweard Muybridge have been the publisher of these stereographs and other, later works instead of the photographer?

Philip Brookman: I think from what I’ve seen, and knowing what I know about Muybridge — and I’m not an expert on [Carleton] Watkins by any means and Weston [Naef] is – I think yes, Muybridge published pictures by other people. Some by Watkins, potentially, but I think he was also a photographer and a significant photographer.

Muybridge is building a catalog and when he first comes back to the United States from England in 1866 or 1867. He’s a photographer. He represents himself as a photographer and he opens a studio and he’s got to very quickly build a catalogue [of images he can sell]. In the ensuing years 1867, 1868, 1869, he may well have purchased pictures from other photographers to add to his catalogue. But, I think he’s definitely taking his own pictures because many of them have his mark on them.

Also, the compositions are unique, uniquely Muybridge. His interest in the manipulation of imagery is uniquely Muybridge. [Ed. — More on this on MAN tomorrow.] Coming from French photography and British photography and interest in the atmosphere and clouds and pointing your camera into the sun, we see Muybridge  using devices that he invented so that he can shade the sky while making an image. He’s also making the sky visible. All these innovations are uniquely Muybridge. Watkins did it less, he was less interested in the manipulated image. Watkins was more interested in a more pure landscape image, compositionally and technically. I think it’s likely Muybridge acquired pictures from other photographers as well.

In terms of [Muybridge] photographing the moon, for example, you see a crescent moon. They’re just pasted in. Those pictures are taken in the daytime and the moon is pasted in when Muybridge is in the darkroom or ‘drawn in’ or however he’d do it. He’s making day-for-night images, again to create things that would be more dramatic.

You know, those are not a California thing. Go to Kingston where Muybridge grew up and you see those clouds. [Kingston-upon-Thames is just outside London. Today it is the first London suburb after Wimbledon.]

MAN: In your catalogue essay you argue that Muybridge must have learned photography before his second trip to the United States, no later than his trip to England between 1860 and 1866 or so. Weston argues that there’s no evidence of any kind – not pictures, not membership in British camera clubs, not mention of Muybridge participating in photography exhibitions in London. If Muybridge did not learn photography in London in those years, could he have made the stereographs and the early work in the show, the stereographs, the work attributed to him?

PB: No. He had to have learned photography, the technical side of photography before he came back to the United States. I believe — and I have no evidence — I believe Muybridge did photography in England when he was there in some way or another and he improved his technique.

I also wonder: Does Muybridge actually learn photography before he goes back to England [in 1860], in San Francisco? He’s interested in photography then. He’s around a lot of photographers, Watkins and so on.

MAN: Right, and we know Watkins and Muybridge were acquainted and probably close professional associates or even friends. Weston points out that there is a letter that Carleton Watkins wrote to a collector man named Laurencil in 1859 that instructs the collector to pay money owed to Watkins to either Watkins or Muybridge, because the collector had purchased Watkins’ images out of a show at Muybridge’s gallery or store or whatever the proper term would be.

PB: Yes, that’s a really interesting discovery: That Muybridge knew Watkins. We know Muybridge knows Watkins in 1860 and as early as 1858 and 1859. Muybridge’s studio is close to Watkins’ studio. They must have known each other, had dialogues and talked photography. It’s possible Muybridge lent Watkins money.

So it’s all interesting, but there’s very little evidence for any of this. So why not this: Muybridge learns photography from Watkins or other photographers. He takes up photography as an amateur. He’s not a professional, but he just learns. We know Muybridge wanted to travel to Yosemite before he goes back England in 1860. He wanted to go there. There’s no evidence he did, but it’s possible he did. He may have gone with Watkins, who was in Yosemite in 1861 and earlier. So it’s possible that Muybridge learns photography before he goes back to England. I think he would have — in England — perfected his technical understanding of photography and learned to make pictures in the way he does when he comes back to San Francisco. He is a photographer in 1867 and he makes pictures that are very adept.

MAN: Regarding that lack of images and so on attributed to Muybridge from his time in London: Could he have made things there or had equipment there and brought it halfway around the world to San Francisco? Or was that just too much hauling stuff around for the 1860s?

PB: It would have been possible for him to do that, to bring pictures back, and he could have brought equipment back too. Muybridge knew early on that the best cameras and lenses were from England and he was importing equipment.

MAN: Muybridge’s signature, his nom de plume, his brand, his whatever-I-should-call-it, ‘Helios’ disappears from use after 1872. Do we, do you have any explanation as to why?

PB: He uses it once after 1872, in 1880. That’s in the Johnson album that’s in the show. Muybridge was commissioned to photograph a house and property for a wealthy San Francisco man named Robert Johnson and his wife Kate. There’s a little section where he signs his work ‘Helios’ again. Who knows why.

Regarding that signature, it’s my theory — and it’s just simply a theory based on my understanding of Muybridge and reading others, whether [Robert Bartlett] Haas or [Gordon] Hendricks or [Rebecca] Solnit — I think that when Muybridge comes back to San Francisco he is not confident of his ability as an artist, and so he establishes a kind of pseudonym, a pen name for the artist and thus the artist is ‘Helios.’ Everything he writes or represents about his studio when he first arrives is ‘Helios.’ He’s arrived and his work is available through Eadweard Muybridge, who is known as a bookseller. So I think it’s really he separates his persona as an artist form his business. ‘Helios’ is the artist and Muybridge is the businessman, the seller of the photographs.

Why he does it is that he’s already changed his name several times. He changes his name a number of times. You think about him as early as 1851, the idea of a young man leaving England and traveling to New York City and later to San Francisco, it’s going to the end of the earth. You test yourself as someone new. So changing your name would be part of that.

Part two will follow early this afternoon.

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  1. Weston Naef says:

    A correction is called for in the matter of Henry Laurencil mentioned above. Laurencil was a client of Watkins’ and hired him to photograph mining subjects. Contrary to what T.G. says above, it is not appropriate to call Laurencil a collector, nor is there any evidence that he saw Watkins’ photographs on view in a gallery.

  2. Weston Naef says:

    Philip Brookman says in the Q&A above “. . .he’s [Muybridge] got to very quickly build a catalogue [of images he can sell]. In the ensuing years 1867, 1868, 1869, he may well have purchased pictures from other photographers to add to his catalogue.”

    The fact is that in 1872 (5 years after his return to S.F.) Muybridge put his name on the Watkins picture of the Laying of the Cornerstone of City Hall [reproduced at the top of Part 2 of the Naef Q&A], a picture that can be securely dated to February 22, 1872. This establishes beyond doubt that Muybridge was dependent on Watkins as a source right up to the time Muybridge made the mammoth plate negatives in Yosemite that were issued by Bradley & Rulofson.

  3. Janae Brand says:

    I believe I have an original Muybridge of Yosemite Falls. I saw a authenicator here in Los ANgeles who recently worked on the authentication of the Ansel Adams negatives and he said he was 99% certain it was a Muybridge. Where can I go from here to get authentication? Thank you!

  4. […] 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 the Guardian, arguing that […]

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