Tyler Green
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Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

Q&A with Philip Brookman, part two

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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. This Q&A with Corcoran and exhibition curator Philip Brookman is continued from here.

MAN: Weston Naef pointed out to me that it’s possible that Muybridge and Watkins could have met each other in New York in 1850 or 1851 too.

Philip Brookman: We know Eadweard Muybridge meets [portrait photographer] Silas Selleck in New York City and Selleck may have been the operator in Matthew Brady’s studio for the portraits that become very well known later, that are shown at the great exhibition in London in 1851. He wins an award and establishes American photography in Europe. So it’s possible that Selleck, who knows Brady, may well have been a good connection for Muybridge to meet other photographers. The Vance work is shown in Europe early on, so Muybridge may have met Vance through Selleck. When Muybridge moved to San Francisco in 1855, he opens a bookstore on Montgomery Street next door to Vance’s studio, so he knows Vance, who’s a really important influence on Watkins too.

There are a lot of connections and my sense photography world couldn’t have been that big. They would have all known each other. [Image: Eadweard Muybridge, Tenaya Canyon. Valley of the Yosemite. From Union Point. No. 35, 1872. Collection of the National Gallery of Art.]

MAN: What is the process of doing this show and to have these kinds of art historical debates pop up like for you? Is it fun? Is it a pain to be questioned? Is it intellectually invigorating?

PB: I think it’s fascinating. 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]. It’s always a process of accumulating all this information. My frustration is not having the time as a scholar to really do all the research. I have a deadline to get the work, a show on the walls. If you’re an academic you can work for 20 years on this and publish, and great. My project was to get an exhibition on the wall, which I did.

My goal in making the exhibition was simply for the first time to make a kind of retrospective view of Muybridge, to put the whole thing together so that we can simply look at it and so all these questions can arise. How does Muybridge get from 1867, these very first pictures, to ‘animal locomotion’ in 1887? And that’s amazing to me, that having done all this research it’s only 20 years, 1867 to 1887 that makes up Muybridge’s professional career as a photographer, during which he makes pictures that we know are made by Muybridge – or, well, maybe that we don’t know! I attribute them to Muybridge, but maybe not? Maybe he got them from Watkins, which means he put his name on the [stereographic] cards. For me, I think with the ‘Helios’ signature, that means he made them.

In 1867 Muybridge prints a brochure that’s in the show. It’s about his Yosemite series, with reviews of it. He uses his name.

MAN: On the stereograph cards and in other places, Muybridge doesn’t claim authorship of the images by saying “by Muybridge.” Instead he says “illustrated by” and such. Why do you think he uses that locution?

PB: That’s because ‘Helios’ took them. If you look at the reviews in the papers [of the time], it says a new photographer, ‘Helios,’ has come to us, making pictures that are far superior to anything ever seen. Muybridge, the great publicist, has planted the pictures in the press offices around the country and has gotten people to write reviews. Then if you look at his scrapbook,  it’s really fascinating. He keeps all these newspaper articles and they’re all pasted into the scrapbook. There are the key articles about the great Muybridge photos of Yosemite in 1867 and in Yosemite in 1872.

The original scrapbook is in the Kingston Museum in Kingston-upon-Thames in England. Muybridge kept it his whole life. He probably made the actual album later, but began pasting stuff together in the 1870s and he kept it up, really through ‘animal locomotion,’ where he puts in the reviews and articles about his career. Sure, he leaves out a lot: The murder [of his wife’s lover], the bad stuff.

MAN: I suppose that one of the things these conversations is pointing out is how much research and scholarship remains to be done on these two huge figures of American and photography history.

PB: We’ve all talked about the need for more study in this area, yes. We’ve talked about the need to get together and talk about all these issues with the idea that there are all these photographs and nobody knows much about them. There’s very little primary reference material about any of them, Muybridge included. Basically we need time and money. It’s a project to put all this together, who took all these pictures and why is it that Watkins, Weed, Muybridge and others are standing at the same point, taking the same picture over a decade apart? And why do those pictures appear in different formats and different places in different albums?

MAN: There’s a lot of period material that hasn’t been examined then?

PB: All we really have to go on is the pictures and bits of evidence of when they worked together. Yes, there may be a lot more out there, newspaper articles, pictures, sure, newspaper articles that talked about the two of them together, from the 1850s on. Now that it’s searchable and more and more searchable thanks to technology, that makes it easier.

One of the sources we do have, that has been examined is a set of albums that were Muybridge’s studio albums. They were created for Bradley & Rulofson, for the sale of Muybridge’s pictures. In those albums there are laid out, in reasonably clear order, half-stereo images of all Muybridge’s stereos and there are hundreds and thousands of pictures in these albums. Some of the albums have larger images, full-plate images, and Muybridge landscape stuff, especially from the Bay Area, from California, from the railroads and organized by series. There are also pages of clouds that Muybridge took and put in the skies of many of his pictures. That really is the holy grail of Muybridge’s early work. There is a publication that Bradley & Rulofson put out in 1872 when they took on Muybridge’s work which is the catalogue of – and I’m paraphrasing here – ‘Views of Yosemite and the West by Eadweard Muybridge.’ It lists in that catalogue, numbered, all Muybridge’s numbers, all of his stereos and it’s not all but many of his full-plate views, cabinet-card-sized pictures and mammoth plate pictures. That’s how I attribute Muybridge’s pictures, and that’s a primary reference.

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