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Only on MAN: The newest Eadweard Muybridge mystery

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Typically when a museum holds an exhibition of a major artist, say Goya, it’s a sure thing that the works on view were indeed made by Goya. After all, the overwhelming majority of artists receiving the retrospective treatment are known quantities whose oeuvres have been studied by scholars for generations. Consensus has emerged.

Not so with Eadweard Muybridge, who is the subject of an extraordinary, first-ever retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Curated by Corcoran chief curator Philip Brookman, the exhibition includes more than 300 objects by and related to Muybridge, from stereographs of Yosemite and the Mariposa Grove to Muybridge’s groundbreaking ‘animal locomotion’ pictures and the related equipment, all of which help paved the way for motion pictures. Because this much Muybridge material has never been accumulated in one exhibition before, the show represents a significant opportunity for scholars to examine the oeuvre of a key pioneer of American photography. The Corcoran’s exhibition will travel to London’s Tate Britain in September and then to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in February, 2011. [Image: Eadweard Muybridge, Pi-Wi-Ack (Shower of Stars), Vernal Fall, 400 Feet, Valley of Yosemite, 1872. Collection SFMOMA.]

But: Are all of the pictures in the exhibition by Eadweard Muybridge? In an exclusive Q&A — the first in a new monthly Q&A series, ‘Newsmakers on MAN’ — Weston J. Naef (below), the recently retired founding curator of photography at the J. Paul Getty Museum and former curator of photography at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, told MAN that he doesn’t think so. Naef thinks that many images traditionally attributed to Muybridge are in fact by Muybridge’s friend and rival Carleton Watkins, and perhaps other photographers as well.

Naef is the foremost expert on Watkins and has organized numerous exhibitions of Watkins’ work. Naef’s catalogue raisonne of Watkins’ large-format pictures, titled “Carleton Watkins: The Complete Mammoth Photographs,” is scheduled for publication in 2011 by Getty Publications. Naef’s examinations could lead to a re-consideration of early American photographic history and a new understanding of how the iconography of the American West was made, presented, sold and distributed. The emergent Muybridge debate also provides an opportunity to see both art and American history as its being determined and debated, a real-life art history mystery-in-progress.

“I think that it’s in part the stereographs that would seem to be most open to reattribution,” Naef told MAN. “The half-plates I think show great potential [for same] and those pix that are on the mounts of Thomas Houseworth & Co. that have been attributed to Muybridge have to be reconsidered, I think.” In the MAN Q&A, Naef effectively calls for substantial investigation into Muybridge’s pre-1872 oeuvre, including his stereographs, his pictures of Yosemite, Alaska, San Francisco and more.

Naef explains why he thinks that stereographs attributed to Muybridge were in fact taken by Watkins, who sold the negatives to Muybridge. Muybridge then printed and sold them under his own name.

“I think from what I’ve seen and knowing what I know about Muybridge — and I’m not an expert on Watkins by any mean and Weston is —  I think yes Muybridge published pictures by other people,” Brookman said. “Some by Watkins potentially, but I think Muybridge was also a photographer and a significant photographer.”

Naef told MAN that he made what he believes to be links between Muybridge-published works and Watkins when he read the Corcoran’s catalogue shortly after researching Watkins at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Mass. The AAS organizes its stereograph collection by subject and not by author, so as Naef studied images of San Francisco, he found images published by Muybridge that he believes fit into Watkins’ stereographic sequence.

Brookman acknowledged that a first-of-its-kind exhibition such as his Muybridge exhibition – which has been four years in the making – is likely to raise these kinds of questions, to lead other scholars, curators and historians to new understandings of how history happened. “I think it’s fascinating,” Brookman said. “In fact, there’s just so much we don’t know about all this stuff and for me the real frustration is not having the time to sit down and put all the pieces together. That takes a tremendous amount of time. What I think is that I never really knew Muybridge until the show was on the wall. You do all this research and you look at all this stuff and you have this investigation in your head and on your computer, but you also don’t have it in your head because no one’s done it before. When you’re a curator you don’t really have a show until you look at it all in one place, on the walls. By that point all your research and writing is done and you think, ‘Hmmm. Maybe it’s different [from what we all originally thought].” [Image: Eadweard Muybridge, Progress of Construction, U.S. Branch Mint, 1870. Collection of California Historical Society via Calisphere.]

This week MAN will feature a three-part Q&A with Naef in which he 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, when Muybridge might have learned photography, Muybridge’s business relationship with Watkins and a different interpretation of research first revealed in the Corcoran catalogue. MAN will also feature a Q&A with Brookman on Muybridge and the emerging historical debate, as well as posts on the work in the show, examples of how Brookman tied certain works to Muybridge, examples of identical images considered to be by both photographers and more.

The June MAN Newsmaker Q&A:

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  1. jkaufman says:

    Such an interesting revelation by Weston Naef, one that shows how much work remains to be done in learning about even the best known early American photographer. Attributions are constantly being revised, even for canonical figures such as Goya, Rembrandt, Rubens, Michelangelo, Gerard David, Petrus Christus, et. al.. The Prado recently acknowledged that some of Goya’s Black Paintings, a mainstay of the museum, may have been painted by h an assistant and there have been claims that other works long exhibited as his are by his son or by the daughter of his late-life companion. The Met changed its attribution of one renowned Goya in a recent exhibition and remained ambivalent about another. Rembrandt exhibitions in Amsterdam and more recently at the Met have acknowledged changing attributions (the Met show was titled “Rembrandt, Not Rembrandt”), and Rubens is another artist whose works have been given to others in recent years. The oeuvres of Michelangelo, Leonardo, and many lesser artists are in flux as museums and art historians revise attributions in light of new information and novel interpretation, sometimes colored by curatorial ambition. Naef’s revelation is in this line, and from what he says appears likely to overturn our understanding of the nature of Muybridge’s enterprise. Most interesting!

  2. […] ‘Modern Art Notes’, the important art blog by Tyler Green, is an introduction to what promises to be a […]

  3. The question of veracity in photography is a long standing issue that does have relationships to other artists and artist workshops. There are a couple of known issues: who took the picture and how “real” is the image: was it manipulated in processing, where the things we see in the image a direct representation of actual events? We all know that Matthew Brady didn’t take all of the images in his Civil War series and moreover we know that Brady and his associates did not take photo-journalistic images as we understand the field today (we do know for a fact that he made compositions of dead corpses by drag bodies around until it made the photo “work” to tell the visual story that he was creating). In “Valley in the Shadow of Death” by Roger Fenton in 1853, where canon balls liter a small valley during the Crimean war – the canon balls were most likely placed there by soldiers and it was not the detritus of the actual war.

    As an intern for the California Historical Society, I handled about 200 Muybridge stereoviews, but I’m not a expert. We know that Watkins preceded Muybridge by a few years. We also know that there are differences in the approach and aesthetic sensibilities of the two photographers (Watkins being more dramatic using higher contrast and deeper shadow detail). In fact Muybridge probably stood in the footsteps at locations where Watkins had previously taken pictures. But in the end, Watkins was a bad businessman. Watkins eventually sold his negatives to surely more than just I.W. Taber, who took over his studio. The publishing houses that produced the stereoviews had an agenda: sell more cards and bring more people out west to boost the economy. So to me, it is not surprising that the leading authority on Watkins questions the attribution of Muybridge’s images. So, yes re-examine the photographers but don’t be surprised if a little incestuousness exists – this is art, you know…

  4. […] – Closer look: The authenticity of certain works attributed to Eadweard Muybridge is called into question by a former curator at the J. Paul Getty Museum. (Modern Art Notes) […]

  5. […] Modern Art Notes has been unfolding a multi-part interview with Naef, plus Corcoran curator Philip Brookman, over the last few days. It’s engrossing, with lots to chew on. The posts begin here. […]

  6. […] photographer.  A Watkins picture is at right.  Currently, in the fall of 2010, some critics are questioning the authenticity of a few Helios pictures that appear in a comprehensive retrospective show scheduled at the […]

  7. […] is showing the Corcoran-originated Eadweard Muybridge retrospective, which has already generated considerable art historical controversy. At the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, the de Young will show a Picasso rental show. Because […]

  8. […] about whether Muybridge actually made the early work traditionally attributed to him. (On MAN: Introduction to MAN’s Q&A with Naef, complete with links to the entire […]

  9. […] Last June, MAN broke the news that Weston Naef, the leading Carleton Watkins scholar, believed that many works attributed to Eadweard Muybridge were in fact Watkins pictures. […]

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