Muybridge / Watkins / Naef

This is from a recent blog:

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes
[October 31, 2011, 5:41 pm]
Muybridge’s Watkinses? NYPL lecture

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.

Naef’s revelation prompted much debate and discussion. Philip Brookman, the curator of the first-ever Muybridge retrospective that started the debate, thought that Naef was likely on to something. However, Muybridge biographer Rebecca Solnit attacked Naef (and MAN) in The Guardian, accusing him of starting a “campaign of innuendo.”

On the occasion of the publication of his book of Watkins’ mammoth plate pictures, Naef will continue the conversation about the Watkins-Muybridge relationship in a lecture at the New York Public Library (which has significant collections of both Watkins and Muybridge). The lecture, titled “The Counterfactual Thesis: Eadweard Muybridge’s Debt to Carleton Watkins,” will take place in the NYPL’s Berger Forum, Room 227 at 6pm.

Rather than “The Counterfactual Thesis: Eadweard Muybridge’s Debt to Carleton Watkins,” the website of the New York Public Library announces the lecture under an abbreviated title:

Counterfactual: Muybridge’s Debt to Watkins
Tuesday, November 1, 2011, 6 – 8 p.m.
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, Margaret Liebman Berger Forum

Weston Naef will speak on the visual dialogue between Carleton Watkins and Eadweard Muybridge, with reference to his forthcoming book, Carleton Watkins: The Complete Mammoth Photographs. The talk will present Watkins (a significant range of whose work is held by the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs) as the most dominant force in California photography between 1860 and 1890, and analyze Watkins’ influence on Muybridge, who is considered to be the father of moving pictures.

Tyler Green’s title “Muybridge’s Watkinses?” perhaps implies that some photographs attributed to Muybridge are in fact by Watkins, and the text of his blog piece certainly states that Weston Naef has been saying this, and indeed Weston Naef has made such statements, privately and publicly.

We could analyse this further. My admittedly limited grasp of English grammar suggests to me that “Muybridge’s Watkinses?” (possessive, followed by plural noun) – implies that Muybridge acquired objects created by Watkins. Had the blog title been “Muybridge’s / Watkins’s?” (possessive, followed by possessive), it could be seen as asking the question; ‘Are these by Muybridge or by Watkins?’ – which is perhaps what Tyler Green meant?

Now, it’s one thing to create an argument about the influence of Watkins on Muybridge, and quite another to suggest that photographs attributed to Muybridge are in fact by Watkins. As a grammatical term, counterfactual arguably suggests a causal effect (Muybridge’s photos wouldn’t have existed, or would have been different, had it not been for Watkins’ precedents); which is a very different thing to stating that some photographs attributed to Muybridge are in fact by Watkins.  Or does the counterfactual thesis claim that attribution to Muybridge of certain photographs is against the facts (or evidence)? I can’t help thinking that this insertion of ‘counterfactual’ in the talk’s title is provocative, and simply obfuscates what is really a simple question.

So what we would like to know is: Does Weston Naef, in his lecture, stick to his statements concerning attribution – that many photographs attributed to Muybridge were taken by Watkins – and give details, or is he simply making a case for Muybridge having been influenced by Watkins? Or, since Weston Naef’s new book (to be published 15 November) has only three references to Muybridge listed in the Index, is this lecture simply a puff for the book, but using Muybridge’s name to draw an audience, who probably wouldn’t have heard of Carleton Watkins? Perhaps someone who attends the lecture could let us know! And I’d be pleased to receive your views on whether I’m misinterpreting the term counterfactual. For the record, I do think there are many questions to be answered about the attribution of certain ‘Muybridge’ photographs, and I hope that continuing research will discover how much can be definitely established.

Possibly I’m being unreasonably cynical here; the main subject of the new book is the Mammoth photographs, so perhaps Weston Naef’s assertions that ‘Muybridge’ photographs in other formats are in fact by Watkins will be dealt with in other lectures, or in future publications. And a Note to the Reader states that ‘Reference to Houseworth & Co prints and Muybridge prints that relate to Watkins is made here’ – which will be very useful. I understand that details of some photographs in smaller than mammoth formats, and details of some stereographs, are also included in the book.

Muybridge aside, this volume is a great achievement for all concerned, revealing these wonderful photographs of Carleton Watkins and promising to be a superb new reference resource for historians of photography.

Posted here by Stephen Herbert

The newest Eadweard Muybridge mystery

Weston Naef. (Tyler Green photo)

On ‘Modern Art Notes’, the important art blog by Tyler Green, is an introduction to what promises to be a controversial suggestion by influential curator of photography Weston J. Naef that Muybridge purchased many of his early photographic negatives, including many which he then inscribed ‘Helios’, from Carleton Watkins.

Essentially, Naef argues that Muybridge couldn’t have been a sufficiently competent photographer, in the late 1860s, to photograph some of the exceptional works – especially the Yosemite subjects – that are attributed to him.

Central to this suggestion is the lack of evidence of any photographic activity by Muybridge in England in the 1860s, before he returned to the USA – apparently having mastered the process. But of course absence of proof isn’t proof of absence, and in fact there are some (admittedly tenuous) pieces of ‘evidence’ – echoes of a suggestion that Muybridge had learned the art from Kingston’s Beadle (a Mr Brown, who certainly practiced photography commercially).

Weston Naef also uses the information that I discovered about Muybridge’s entrepreneurial activities in the 60s – with the failed Bank of Turkey, and a failed silver mine – to build a gradually evolving picture of the man as a serial entrepreneur, who ‘bought up’ rather than invented the clothes-washing machine, and printing method, that he dabbled with in the early 60s. And then bought up photographs by Watkins, and marked them “Helios”.

There are, of course, other possibilities. This isn’t a new subject, and it has been argued both ways. Back in the 1970s, James E. Ayers noted in a brochure to accompany an exhibition of Muybridge’s work: : ‘[earlier] photographs of the Yosemite Valley, credited to [Carleton E.] Watkins, could possibly have been ‘ghosted’ by Muybridge.’

The fuss is attracting bloggers to create posts with such titles as “Did the Corcoran Fall for an Eadweard Muybridge Scam?

Tyler Green reports on Modern Art Notes:

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.”

At this stage it’s all supposition of course, but this new interest in Muybridge’s early photographic activities, and questions about the attribution of certain photographs, will perhaps lead to new facts being discovered. More on this soon.

Posted here by Stephen Herbert