Phantom Skies and Shifting Ground: Landscape, Culture, and Rephotography in Eadweard Muybridge's Illustrations of Central America

An Introduction to Eadweard Muybridge

Written transcript for video above, "An introduction to Eadweard Muybridge, Part I." Pictures cited in the video.

By Byron Wolfe

Eadweard Muybridge was an unusual man. To begin with, his given name was Edward James Muggeridge when he grew up at Kingston upon Themes in England. In 1850 he moved to the United States and changed his name to Edward James Muygridge. He used three different names in the decades that followed. After his death, his tombstone engraving included a misspelled version of his last name, giving him a sixth and final appellation, this one certainly unchosen.

The main reason he is known today is because of a horse, or rather, a photograph of a horse, that he made in 1877. The animal was Occident, owned by California Governor Leland Stanford. Muybridge was the photographer who figured out both the mechanics and chemistry required to record something that was moving so rapidly that it would otherwise have been rendered as a ghostly blur by the then relatively young technology of photography.

In this grid of pictures, Muybridge photographed Sallie Gardner, another of Stanford’s horses, with a bank of cameras lined up in a sequence that made individual exposures in a rapid, timed succession. He went on to make tens of thousands of these “Motion Studies” while working at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. In 1885 he published an 11-volume book titled Animal Locomotion. These sequenced pictures preceded what ultimately became moving pictures, or movies.

Before Muybridge became known for his motion studies, he was a landscape photographer based in San Francisco, California. His subjects included many of the most iconic 19th century western landscapes, including Yosemite, in California’s Sierra Nevada range.

In 1875, after returning from one of his many photographic outings, Muybridge, then aged 40, came home to his 20 year old wife, Flora. She had just given birth to a son whom Muybridge took to be both the likeness and the progeny of Major Harry Larkyns, a San Francisco theater critic and Flora’s companion. Enraged, Muybridge tracked down Larkyns in Napa, California, and with the words “My name is Muybridge and I have a message for your from my wife!” shot him dead.

Muybridge was tried for the murder and was acquitted for reasons of “justifiable homicide.” His lawyers employed early versions of an insanity defense and cited his photographs as evidence of his imbalanced mental state. That was, after all, the only way to explain some of the incredibly dangerous vantage points he chose for some of his pictures. As one who has stood at the precise locations of hundreds of his pictures, his attorney’s claim of insanity is somewhat justified.

Written transcript for video above, "An introduction to Eadweard Muybridge, Part II." Pictures cited in the video.

In a trip that was arranged prior to the trial, but that proved to be a well-timed getaway from San Francisco’s post-murder press, Muybridge boarded a ship in the San Francisco Bay in the dead of night. The steamer was “The Honduras” a ship owned by the Pacific Mail Steamship Company and it was headed to Central America. The ship is seen here in the distance. When he eventually de-boarded in Panama, he did so as Eduardo Santiago Muybridge, the fourth in his slowly animating sequence of names.

The Honduras visited thirteen ports with extended stays in both Panama and Guatemala. He made hundreds of photographs during his travels. After about a year, he returned to San Francisco and produced a limited number of photographic albums for sale.

Each album is unique in picture count and selection but they are typically embossed on the leather bound cover with gold text and the title Photographic Studies of Central America and the Isthmus of Panama, by Muybridge. Inside, they had an even longer and more detailed designation on the title page: The Pacific Coast of Central America and Mexico; The Isthmus of Panama; Guatemala; and the Cultivation and Shipment of Coffee, Illustrated by Muybridge.

To date, eleven albums are known to exist, with a few smaller collections of pictures scattered across North America. Their individual picture counts vary, but the single largest volume, with a numbered sequence of 264 pictures, is held at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Muybridge’s photographs document everything from the public plazas and colonial architecture of the cities, to the workers and processing methods of several nascent coffee fincas in the Guatemalan Highlands. He photographed nearly all of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company’s in-holdings.


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