The Muybridge controversy

Eadweard Muybridge, The Human and Animal Locomotion Photographs, published by Taschen

The long-awaited Eadweard Muybridge exhibition opens at Tate Britain on 8 September, running until 16 January 2011. The exhibition has been developed by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington DC, where it ran April-July under the title Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change. The Tate exhibition is entitled ‘Eadweard Muybridge: The Photographer who Proved Horses Could Fly’, which has to win some sort of an award for direst exhibition subtitle of the decade, but the change from the Washington show is significant. Because since the Muybridge show opened in America controversy has arisen over the authenticity of some of Muybridge’s works, and in particular the name ‘Helios’.

‘Helios’ was a name adopted by Eadweard Muybridge when marketing his photographs in the United States in the 1860s, in the period before he took up sequence photography. Muybridge had emigrated from the UK to the USA in 1851, when his surname was still that which his parents would have recognised, Muggeridge, and initially was involved in book selling. He moved to California and changed his name to Muygridge. After a traumatic stagecoach crash he returned to Britain in 1860. The biography is a bit vague for the next few years, but somewhere along the line he pick up considerable skills in the wet collodion photographic process. He returned to the United States in 1867, traded as Helios, and revealed himself to be a photographic genius (now named Muybridge), with stereoscopic and panoramic views of landscapes and cityscapes which reached the pinnacle of the art-form. Then in 1872 he was approached by railroad baron Leland Stanford to help settle a debate about whether a horses hooves left the ground when galloping, using rapid photography, and the rest was proto-motion picture history.

‘Helios’ photograph of Yosemite Falls, credited to Eadweard Muybridge, from Yosemite: Its Wonders and Its Beauties (1868) by John S. Hittell, c/o http://www.yosemite.ca.us. Note the ‘Helios’ credit in the bottom right-hand corner

The controversy lies in the ‘Helios’ period. Just as the Washington exhibition opened, a photography historian Weston Naef was interviewed for a fairly explosive three-part piece about Muybridge for Artinfo which claimed that much of Muybridge’s work at this time was the work of another photographer, Carleton Watkins, who photographed the Yosemite region at around the ame time as Muybridge. Here are the three parts:

You’ll have to read Naef’s interview to get the full conspiracy theory, but essentially he argues that Muybridge bought negatives from other photographers, particularly Watkins, marketing them under the ‘Helios’ name, then goes on to claim that Watkins taught Muybridge all he knew, sometimes standing over him to coach him (there is no evidence for either of those last two assertions). There are two aspects to this: the arguments and the conclusion. The arguments range from the intriguing to the silly. The silliest is where Naef says that no one could become a photographic genius with the speed that Muybridge showed, giving this reasoning:

It seems very likely that when Muybridge returned to San Francisco in 1867 that he would have acquired — in the same way he acquired patents and the rights to publish books — he would have used the same kind of method to establish himself in a new business in San Francisco, and that new business would have been as a publisher of photographs rather than as a maker of them. There is no evidence for how in 1868 he could have gained the mastery required to make many of the exceptional small works that are on view in the first several galleries. The mystery remains: When did Muybridge perform the 10,000 hours of practice in photography that people who are involved in studying the psychology of learning believe is required to become a world-class master in any subject?

What tosh. There are very few people who put in 10,000 hours of practice at anything and come out geniuses. They come out as averagely proficient. Geniuses tend to leap-frog the stages that we ordinary mortals have to follow, and to do so damn quickly. Muybridge was a photographic genius because he was gifted.

But if some of the reasoning is faulty (and I should add that Naef has many more arguments in favour of the photographer he admires, namely Watkins), the conclusion has an element of probability about it. Why might not have Muybridge marketed the work of others under the Helios trademark? He was a businessman before he became an artist (or scientist, depending on your point of view). It may have taken a while before he saw photographs as something he wanted to create rather than objects he wanted to sell. It’s a speculative area that merits further investigation, but with the realisation that this is but one small aspect of the career of a major creative artist. One of the exciting things about Muybridge is that we are still discovering so much about him, and that so many intriguing mysteries remain about him.

Naef’s allegations have led to all sorts 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 Naef, and Rebecca Solnit, author of the excellent Muybridge biography Motion Studies (aka River of Shadows) whose piece in The Guardian ably defends Muybridge against the campaign of innuendo.

Part of Muybridge’s 1878 photographic panorama of San Francisco, from America Hurrah!

Meanwhile, there’s a major exhibition to enjoy, which promises to bring together “the full range of his art for the first time”, exploring the ways win which Muybridge created and honed such remarkable images, works which influenced artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Francis Bacon and Philip Glass’s music, and which continue to resonate powerfully with artists today. Highlights include a seventeen foot panorama of San Francisco and recreations of the Zoopraxiscope (pre-film motion pictures on a disc) in action.

Needless to say, plenty of associated publications and events will be around to coincide with the exhibition. Most exciting among the former is probably going to be Taschen’s monumental Eadweard Muybridge, The Human and Animal Locomotion Photographs (published 25 September), put together by Hans Christian Adam. This reproduces all 781 plates from Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion (1887), the entirety of The Attitudes of Animals in Motion (1881), and an authoritative chronology by Stephen Herbert. At long last it looks like we have a replacement for the venerable volumes produced by Dover Publications. No less essential will be Marta Braun’s new biography, Eadweard Muybridge, published on 24 September, by Reaktion. Plus there’s the exhibition book, Eadweard Muybridge, edited by Philip Brookman, and from the Tate shop an irresistible selection of Muybridgean goodies, including posters, bags, calendars, prints, postcards, notebooks, T-shirts, rulers, and the inevitable fridge magnets.

Muybridge photographic sequences, from http://www.taschen.com

On the events side, Muy Blog provides this list (with the promise of adding more as they emerge):

Eadweard Muybridge at Tate Britain
8 Sept – 16 Jan
Tate Britain, Millbank
First major UK retrospective of Muybridge’s entire career.
Tickets £10/£8.50 from htpp://www.tate.org.uk/britain

Muybridge in Kingston Launch Day
Sat 18 Sept 12.30-7pm
Kingston Museum & Stanley Picker Gallery
Public launch of the Muybridge in Kingston exhibitions with special events for all the family, including a magic lantern show from Professor Heard, shadow puppetry from Zannie Fraser and an evening launch lecture on Muybridge’s links to the history of the moving and projected image by Muybridge expert Stephen Herbert.
All welcome – no booking required.

Park Nights at Serpentine Gallery Pavilion
Becky Beasley & Chris Sharp
Fri 24 Sept 8pm
Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens
13 pieces, 17 feet is a monologue in thirteen parts that finds its point of departure in Muybridge’s extraordinary 1878 San Francisco panorama.
Tickets £5/£4 from http://www.serpentinegallery.org/park_nights/

Late at Tate: Eadweard Muybridge
Fri 1 Oct 6pm-10pm
Tate Britain, Millbank
An evening of Muybridge-inspired events.
Visit htpp://www.tate.org.uk/britain for further details.

In Conversation: Trevor Appleson
Wed 6 October 7pm
Stanley Picker Gallery
Exploring Muybridge’s influence on contemporary arts practitioners.
Limited seating – to reserve a FREE place please call 020 8417 4074

Muybridge & Moving Image History
Thurs 14 Oct, 28 Oct & 11 Nov 7pm
Kingston Museum
Evening lecture series offering unique insights into the relationship between Muybridge’s work and the history of visuality, film and animation.
Limited seating – to reserve a FREE place please call 020 8547 6460

See also the events programme given on the Muybridge at Kingston site (Kingston-on-Thames being the birth and deathplace of Muybridge and home of a huge collection of his works at its museum).

Once again, the Tate Britain exhibition runs from 8 September 2010 to 16 January 2011.

Well, all I can say is, beat that, Carleton Watkins.

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