Obsession: Eadweard Muybridge at SFMOMA

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Muybridge Fencing 1887
Eadweard Muybridge, Fencing (Movements. Male). 1887
Collotype on paper
(Corcoran Gallery of Art)

One of the many astonishing tasks assigned to me as an intern at the Worcester Art Museum one summer in the mid-70s was to cut mats for prints in the Museum’s collection of 19th-century photographs. Among the many prints I handled in the cellar workroom as part of that assignment, Eadweard Muybridge’s (1830-1904) motion studies made the most profound and lasting impression on me.

As I discovered this week at SFMOMA’s “Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change,” those plates still generate wonder and awe all these years later.

Eadweard Muybridge, Leland Stanford, Jr. on his Pony “Gypsy
(Phases of a Stride by a Pony While Cantering), 1879
Collodion positive on glass
(Wilson Centre for Photography, London; photo courtesy SF MOMA)

The grid presentation must have been part of their appeal. Although it has become a pervasive, even banal, visual presentation vehicle since, in the mid-70s the grid was a fresh aesthetic. In any case, the Muybridge have managed to retain originality. Each one of their “cells”—an individual “freeze frame”— contains its own inherent fascination; in the disconnect between what the eye sees but the brain does not register lies powerful affirmation of the marvel that is life on Earth.

Bernd & Hilla Becher, Framework Houses, negative 1970
Offset photolithograph, 24 3/4 x 19 3/4 in
(Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

The motion study plates gives a tantalizing glimpse of the rich junction where science and art meet. The Victorians congregated en masse at this place; in their quest to understand ever deeper truths about the world around them, they obsessively experimented, collected and cataloged. During the latter half of the 19th century an understanding of scientific phenomenon expanded and with it came technological and cultural change.

Muybridge was a vigorous participant in this transformation. The most exciting characteristic of the intersection of art and science is its unpredictability. Muybridge’s work is no exception. Every once in a while a truly magnificent work of art emerges from among the uninspiring duds; for me Fencing, Boxing, Movement of the Hand; Lifting a Ball are among the best kind of aesthetic successes.

Eadweard Muybridge, Valley of the Yosemite,
Confluence of the Merced, and Yosemite Creek, No. 21, 1872
Albumen silver print
(The Society of California Pioneers)

As the SF MOMA show amply demonstrates, there is so much more to Eadweard Muybridge than motion.

In particular, walk through the rooms filled with sublime compositions of Yosemite and question why Carleton Watkins’ reputation as a landscape photographer has eclipsed that of Muybridge.

Carleton Watkins, Yosemite Valley, ca. 1865
(Library of Congress)

Muybridge distinguished himself as a chronicler of the urban world too. His 17-foot long view of San Francisco (1877) may have established him as first photographer to assemble plates into a panoramic view. This monumental piece is a fitting testament to the capabilities of man. The photograph provides inescapable fascination as one contemplates the notion of the passage of time. Logjams will form undoubtedly form in the room, as visitors take time to pour over the startling minute detail of this work.

Eadweard Muybridge, The Ramparts, Funnel Rock, Hole in the Wall,
Pyramid, Sugar Loaf, Oil House, and Landing Cove on
Fisherman’s Bay, South Farallon Island
1871
Albumen silver print
(U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s Office; photo courtesy of SF MOMA)

Eadweard Muybridge, Bridge on the Puerto Bello, Panama, 1875
Albumen silver print
(Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA;
Photo courtesy of SF MOMA)

With some seven rooms filled with photographs, surely no visitor will leave this show unconvinced of Eadweard Muybridge’s artistic legacy.

Wider Connections

SFMOMA catalog—Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change
Muybridge Collection, Lone Mountain College
Eadweard Muybridge SF Panorama

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5 Responses to “Obsession: Eadweard Muybridge at SFMOMA”

  1. I saw the Muybridge exhibit at the Corcoran and spent quite a bit of time with it. The motion studies got most of the attention in the write-ups here but you highlight where viewing is most rewarding.

  2. Love the motion studies, and remember really studying some reproductions (and later originals) when I read about how interested artists like Manet and Degas were in these images. Francis Bacon was fascinated by them, too. There used to be arguments galore among figurative artists over trying to freeze movement in a painting–it looks fake, or not fake depending on who is talking, and even whether it was idiotic to paint a person smiling, as people will do in photographs. You wouldn’t see anyone with a wide grin in a Sargent portrait though you often saw movement along the canals of Venice, and children playing in the garden. It makes me think also of what a different world it was for Muybridge’s time. Remember how the Ashcan School got started, with many of the artists working for the print media, and drawing on the fly? Revisiting this era when photography could seem almost magical is itself a wonderful moment in time, just as the photographs themselves are moments in time. Sometimes I have such a flood of memories reading your blog! Thanks!

  3. So, are you back? I missed your posts.

    Sent this to my photographer husband who is becoming a student of all things photographic. He’s Type A all the way when it comes to immersing himself in a subject. These do look familiar so I’m sure I’ve seen them before.

  4. Amazing!

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