Muybridge Yosemite

Sylvan Bar. Valley of the Yosemite

Photographer: Muybridge. Publisher: Bradley & Rulofson
(Online Archive of California web site: Valley of the Yosemite by Eadweard Muybridge, 1872.)

Click to enlarge. It’s beautiful.

Blog posts featuring Muybridge and his work vary greatly in quality, and most are not too interesting, but one in ten makes up for this. My favourite entry this month is on a blog by “Jeff” (that’s the only name I can find at present): SECONDAT:  “You have to study a great deal to know a little.” Pensees et Fragments Inedits de Montesquieu.

Muybridge Yosemite
In which I celebrate family and friends.

A few months back my sister sent me Rebecca Solnit’s River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West. We both like taking pictures and both admire good photography. She thought I’d like the book and she was right. I thought at first I might find it tedious since I’m not particularly interested in the stop-action photos for which Muybridge is famous (and which he pioneered). But Solnit is an excellent critic, she writes well, and, I was pleased to discover, a lot of the photography is aesthetically more appealing than the motion studies. For Muybridge, it turns out, made many images of places and people in the “Wild West” of Solnit’s subtitle. Some of these, as she says, are not only innovative and technically ept, but also strikingly beautiful. The book’s frustration is that it describes but does not show this beauty. The few photographs that it contains are, in my Penguin paperback copy, dreadfully reproduced.

Enter my friend John. He noticed that the Corcoran Gallery here in Washington DC has mounted a very large exhibit of Muybridge’s work: Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change. It’s on view through July 18, 2010. ….When John said what he would be going, I asked if the show included any of the (reputedly) great Yosemite photos and when he said it did I leapt at the opportunity to join him on a visit there this past weekend. I wasn’t disappointed. There were room after room of stereographs along with many medium-format and mammoth-plate images, lots of them from Yosemite.

I particularly wanted to see the mammoth-plate ones. They’re big, as the name suggests: each at least 17 inches high and 21.5 inches wide. As are all his photos, they’re also direct images from the photo plates — contact prints rather than enlargements.

Muybridge observed the general design principles then common, including fore-, mid-, and background elements to convey a sense of depth, but, unlike others, he would show debris in foreground — flotsom, fallen limbs, brush, stream-wash, and the like.

This aspect of Muybridge’s landscape work was first brought to my attention some fifteen years ago by the then Curator of Kingston Museum, Paul Hill. Paul had developed a perceptive appreciation of the Yosemite photographs despite being limited almost entirely to viewing only reproductions, mostly of quite poor quality, and his enthusiasm for them dragged me away from the Zoopraxiscope material for just long enough to make a mental note to investigate further. That didn’t really happen, which is one reason I’m looking forward to the Tate Britain’s “Helios” exhibition later this summer – a unique opportunity to wallow in Muybridge landscapes.

Jeff’s blog entry is well worth a visit, with informed comments on several specific Yosemite images by Muybridge, and some by other image-makers.

Posted here by Stephen Herbert