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. John took summer art lessons at the Corcoran when he was young and uses his drawing skill as a teacher of 6- to 9-year-olds in a local publc Montessori School. When one of his students recently showed an interest in stereoscopic photographs, John brought in his own antique stereoscope (which looks something like this), and, between his own fond memories of the gallery and his student's blossoming interest, the Corcoran exhibition (which shows off many Muybridge stereographs) was bound to be a major draw for him.
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. This means the camera he used had to be large enough to accommodate the 2-foot-wide glass negatives. He made these glass plates using the wet-plate collodion process that was then most common and this required a portable darkroom and wagon load of equipment and chemicals. The contact prints are positives pulled directly from the developed and fixed glass plates. He made them using the prevailing albumen photoprint technique. Most of the Yosemite images come from the early 1870s, a time not far from a century and a half distant from us. Given how many years that is and all that can occur over such long periods, I was pleasantly surprised at the Corcoran exhibit to see how well the prints have been preserved.
Muybridge was one of maybe a dozen photographers and artists who were working in Yosemite during the decade after it gained federal protection and was set aside for preservation and public use. His technique and his aesthetic values distinguished him from the others in a few significant ways. (1) Technique: He took his bulky camera into difficult locations to get the views he wanted. This often involved scrambling up peaks and descending down steep slopes to place the camera on whatever support he could find at his chosen vantage.* To get around a serious problem with the color sensitivity of the photographic emulsions of his day, he would use a self-invented "skyshade" to obscure part of the scene during part of the exposure.** Also he sometimes added clouds by taking separate images and putting them in the negatives after development and fixing.*** Alternatively, he would sometimes simply under-expose an image, making foreground dark and sky appear somewhat closer to what the eye expects to see. (2) Aesthetic: 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. He, like the other photographers of his time liked to show falling water with its sense of motion conveyed in the blur that the required lengthy exposures brought about. But he also used the blur-effect to convey an illusion of misty-light, feathery atmospherics. He also sometimes placed an object, an axe for example, or figure in the fore- or mid-ground not just to show scale, but also to indicate presence: to draw attention to the human element in the grandeur of the scenery. Also, at a time when photographers usually worked when the light was brightest and shadows least intrusive, he would sometimes take photos in the long-shadow periods early or late in the day.
I don't have images of the actual mammoth-plate prints in the Corcoran show, but there are many good ones to be seen in the collections of Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley. You can find them in the Online Archive of California web site: Valley of the Yosemite by Eadweard Muybridge, 1872. Here are a few from that source.**** Click an image to view it in high resolution.
1. This image uses the usual technique to give illusion of depth and its composition reflects design basics that artists had been observing for many years. It also uses reflection, a favorite technique of the Yosemite photographers. Notice that the reflected part of the image is less affected by the blue-light sensitivity of the photo plate. My favorite photos at the Corcoran exhibit all used reflection to good effect. This shot also shows the long shadows for which Muybridge is known. And finally it contains some of what other photographers considered to be unaesthetic debris.
2. I'm particularly fond of this one. Notice how he shows the reflected image of the rock face to the right, but does not show the face itself (that is to say you can't see it because of the foreground trees).
3. This shows the feathery water blur. Click and view high-res to best see how this effect works in the photo. It's also pretty clear that to take the photo he had to place his big bulky camera in a perilous spot.
4. This image shows a scene that his contemporaries took from pretty much the same vantage. I've included images from two of them and one modern version below.
5. Here is a photo of Mirror Lake by one of Muybridge's competitors,
Carleton E. Watkins. It's half a stereograph card which accounts for the square format. Much smaller than Muybridge's mammoth-plate version, it succeeds very well in my view.
6. This is Albert Bierstadt's treatment of the same subject. It's also half a stereograph and is also well made.
7. Just to round things out, here's an example of a modern effort to replicate the old technique. It comes from an 8" x 10" wet collodion plate.
8. Bierstadt was also a painter, of the Hudson River School. Here's an example of his work. Paintings like this were highly treasured, of course, but they were also extremely expensive, very slow to produce, and not as easily shared with the public as the photographs of Muybridge, Watkins, and Bierstadt himself.
* In 1872 the San Francisco newspaper Alta California described this:
He has cut down trees by the score that interfered with the best point of sight; he had himself lowered down by ropes down precipices to establish his instrument in places where the full beauty of the object could be transferred to the negative; he has gone to points where his packers refused to follow him, and he has carried the apparatus himself rather than to forgo the picture on which he has set his mind**The emulsions were sensitive only to blue light. This meant the positive prints showed sky and cloud to be much lighter than the human eye perceives them to be. The appearance is a washed-out uniformity of bright sky with only slightly brighter areas of cloud. Muybridge made the sky seem more natural by using a mask to under-expose the sky area of the image.
Later orthochromic and panchromatic films were better spectrum-balanced than the emulsions Muybridge used. Even when using these films, photographers would quite often use yellow, orange, or even red filters to cut the amount of blue light.
B & H Foto & Electronics Corp.
*** He seems to have done this by making a small-plate cloud image and laying it over a large-plate landscape during the printing process.
****The curators write:
This collection is an incomplete set (45 of 51) of mammoth plate albumen prints taken by Muybridge in 1872 and published by Bradley & Rulofson at 429 Montgomery Street, San Francisco during subsequent years. The collection includes duplicate prints of numbers 9 and 51, bringing the total number of prints to 47. Thirty-nine of the scenes are of the Yosemite Valley, five are of the Sierra Nevada mountains and one is of the Mariposa Grove of mammoth trees. The set is made up of prints from various editions; therefore some prints lack the photographer's number or have a variant caption typeface. Captions for the lacking prints are supplied by Bradley & Rulofson's Catalogue of Photographic Views Illustrating the Yosemite, Mammoth Trees, Geyser Springs, and other Remarkable and Interesting Scenery of the Far West (1873) . The Bancroft Library's prints are numbered according to the photographer's number in this catalog. Therefore there are gaps in the library's numbering of the prints. Born Edward James Muggeride in Kingston-upon-Thames, England, April 9, 1830, Muybridge came to the U.S. in the early 1850s and opened a bookstore in San Francisco in 1855. After being seriously injured in a fall from a stagecoach, he returned to England, where he turned to photography. He came back to San Francisco in the late 1860s and did photographic work for the U.S Coast and Geodetic Survey.