In search of ‘Helios’

Onward away ! away his steeds,
Mad with the momentary pause,
Plunge through the scattered clouds !

Helios !

Richard Henry Horne
Prometheus the Fire-bringer (1864)

The exhibition Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change, at the Corcoran Gallery, Washington, (which ended recently) has brought to light a major problem with our understanding of the early work. In the 1860s, Muybridge adopted the name ‘Helios’ for the publication of his photographs. Some photographs bear the name scratched into the image. It has always been assumed that this was simply a pseudonym, but photohistorian Weston Naef has claimed that Muybridge bought negatives by others, including Carleton Watkins, selling the prints under the Helios label – which was essentially a ‘studio name’ rather than a pseudonym.

Naef’s arguments include the suggestion that many of the early photographs are too accomplished to have been taken by someone who had been in the business for such a short time, and that there is no evidence that Muybridge commenced photography before his return to the USA in 1866. There is also solid evidence that some ‘Muybridge’ and ‘Helios’ photographs should be attributed to others. I shall be taking a look at those claims over the coming weeks, as time allows. In the meantime, a short story about one of my web searches…..

A few years ago, I noticed that the online catalog of the George Eastman House included an early address for Muybridge – in Paris. Could he really have been located in France in 1864?

Late Summer 1861 he wrote to his uncle that he was leaving for the continent “on business that may detain me some months.” On 3 December 1862 the Daily Alta California reported: ‘A letter from Paris of Oct. 24th says: There has been a great influx of Californians within the past few weeks. […] E.J. Muygridge was here a few days since, but has returned to London…’

I contacted George Eastman House.

Hello, I note that one of the addresses on your Bibliog file (online) for Eadweard Muybridge is:

France, Paris — 9 rue Cadet (1864)

This was the address of photographer M. Berthaud. I believe that Muybridge may indeed have been in Paris at this time, but there are no details in any of the biographical works that I have been able to find. Would it be possible to find out where this address came from? Any help would be much appreciated. Thank you, Stephen Herbert (Muybridge Consultant, Kingston Museum).

I received the following response:

Dear Mr. Herbert,
Yes, that does seem questionable. I do not have a way of supporting this Paris address and am inclined to delete it from our (new) database (not yet available to offsite research). As a compromise, I have moved it into 2nd place from 1st place in the record. Sorry to be so slow in responding and so unhelpful as well.

Joe R. Struble
Assistant Archivist

So that, I thought, was that. No way to check.

And then days ago, a private collector – finding the “Rue Cadet” address on my website during an internet search –  sent me this.

On the back of which, is this:

Yes, the trade name of  Mons. Berne-Bellecour in association with M. Berthaud was – ‘Helios’.

Around 1867, Michel Berthaud became associated with Etienne Berne-Bellecour (active in photography from 1864 to 1870 – was this E. Berne-Bellecour the painter?) who had already established the ‘Helios’ firm – we do not yet know exactly when. By 1867 Muybridge was back in  France, so unless Berne-Bellecour was using the name Helios in 1865-66, or earlier, our Muybridge connection disappears.

(After Bern-Bellecour’s departure in 1870 the firm continued under Berthaud, using the ‘Helios’ name for decades, and with many branches in the 1870s-80s.) [Eves Lebrec]

The possibilities seem almost endless – but here are three:

a) Muybridge worked in France for M. Berne-Bellacour’s company in the 1860s, which used the name Helios as an encompassing title to cover the photographs of more than one partner. This was where Muybridge developed his photographic skills, and accounts for why he isn’t found in the English press (including the photographic periodicals) at that time, and doesn’t seem to have been a member of any British photographic society. Somewhere there is evidence of this French connection, used by the GEH cataloguer.

b) Muybridge, who certainly visited Paris in the 1860s, noted the name Helios at M. Berne-Bellecour’s establishment, and adopted it for the same reason – a trade name would cover the published photographs of more than one photographer – which would tie in with Weston Naef’s suggestion.

c) Complete coincidence.

If (b) or (c), the GEH cataloguer must have noted the address on a dated French carte printed with the ‘Helios’ design, and aware that this was Muybridge’s trade name, made a leap of faith and assumed that he was working from that address at that time.

For a few moments I hoped that I would find an early use of Muybridge’s scratched ‘Helios’ with an acute accent (Hélios), a tiny Roland Barthes ‘punctum’ that would instantly prove a French connection, but as I peered fruitlessly at the various relevant photographs that hope gradually dissolved.

This possible French ‘Helios’ connection is tantalising enough, but it doesn’t stop there.

In 1859 the French photographer Camille-Leon-Louis Silvy (1834-1910) moved to England and opened what was perhaps London’s first carte-de-visite studio, at the beginning of the huge craze for cartes. The website of the National Portrait Gallery states: “In summer 1859 Silvy established his London studio in Bayswater on the north side of Hyde Park. He chose this location because he was a keen and knowledgeable horseman and wanted to make equestrian portraits.”

Silvy had taken up photography in 1857 to document his travels, his most well-known photograph was of the river Huisne in 1858, known today as “River Scene, France”. (Not for Silvy the 10,000 hours of practice that Weston Naef says is necessary to become world class.)

Karen Hellman explains,

“Because clouded skies were challenging in early photographs, Silvy used a method first invented by Hippolyte Bayard and made famous by Gustave Le Gray that is to take a separate negative of a cloudy sky and splice it with the negative of the landscape in the printing stage. In addition, Silvy has to paint in parts of the main cluster of poplar trees as well as along the horizon to blend the two negatives. Because of his success with these techniques as evident in ‘River Scene,’ Silvy is recognized as one of the great craftsmen if photographic printing.”
Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography (Routledge 2008)

River Scene. Camille Silvy, 1858. (V&A Museum)

Anyone familiar with Muybridge’s landscape and travel photography will, of course, recognize this technique as one extensively used by Muybridge a few years later – he even constructed and patented a ‘sky shade’ to make the procedure easier.

After his 1859 move to London, Silvy quickly became prominent as a fashionable society portrait photographer, at 32 Porchester Terrace, a studio he called — Helios House. Apart from the portraits, Silvy created series of studies of light and weather, street scenes, and photographic reproductions of manuscripts – and was an inventor of machines (he would eventually create a panoramic camera).

Again, anyone accustomed Muybridge’s work will immediately note the parallels in all of the above.

In addition, Silvy experimented in making print runs of photographs in ink, at about the time that Muybridge was applying for a patent – apparently, though this is a mystery in itself, which I’m investigating – for his own printing method.

(After a spell in Exeter, in 1870 Silvy moved back to France. He became a manic-depressive and, poisoned by photographic chemicals, entered an asylum in 1881 and died there in 1910.)

All of the above is circumstantial evidence at best, and proves nothing. But it certainly indicates that there are places to look in an attempt to find out what Muybridge was doing in Europe – including a possibility that he was already deeply involved in photography – in the ‘lost years’ of 1861-66. And if indeed he was involved in a photographic studio then a letter, or dusty ledger, or account book, or agreement  … some scrap that’s survived the century and a half between then and now, is out there waiting to be discovered, somewhere. Somewhere….

In the meantime, with impeccable timing an exhibition, Camille Silvy – Photographer of Modern Life, opened at the National Portrait Gallery, London, on 15 July.

Posted here by Stephen Herbert

2 comments on “In search of ‘Helios’

  1. urbanora says:

    Master detective or what, eh? By the way, what spelling of his name did EJM use while in France? Might he have tinkered with his name there in some way?

  2. […] of online speculation. The best responses have been Muybridge authority Stephen Herbert’s Muy Blog, which looks at Muybridge’s ‘lost’ years of the 1860s while artfully debunking […]

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