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