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: