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

Chapter One, Part I: Phantom Skies

The following is a sample from the opening chapter of Phantom Skies and Shifting Ground. The extended essay is a meditation on how we derive meaning from photographs, what we expect from it as a medium, and a critique of the practice of rephotography.

The first time I saw Volcan Quezaltenango—Guatemala, I laughed. It was a spontaneous and uncontrolled reaction to a visual logic that was so flawed, so completely surreal and implausible, that I was unprepared for the mental smack in the head. At the time, it was my very first viewing of one of several rare Muybridge Central American albums, this one housed at Stanford University.

The photograph presumably showed a view looking down into the crater of a Guatemalan volcano with a jumbled collection of sharp edged boulders (other copies of the same picture in different albums even use the title Looking into the crater of Volcan Queztaltenango). Hovering mid-frame above the disordered stones was a small, roughly brain-shaped cloud with delicate lace-like white edges produced from an intense backlit light source. There were just too many conflicting visual cues from the picture to make any kind of logical sense. All at once you were looking both down into the ground and up into the sky. The largest of the boulders was more than five times the size of the cloud, which felt as though it was off at a distance and at least as large as a modest building. And if that weren’t enough, somehow, the sun was implausibly sandwiched in a thin layer between the distinct flat plane of boulders on the ground and the infinite depth of the sky beyond the hovering clouds. What was this photograph supposed to be, anyway? A depiction of a violent eruption in progress? Steam being forced out of the cracks of a crater? A collection of rocks hurtling through the Guatemalan sky? This image, like nearly every other picture in the album, was a fabrication crafted out of two completely different photographs. But unlike all the other more literal and descriptive pictures in the collection, this one had a surreal, phantasmagoric quality. I dismissed the dark and brooding picture as unnecessarily romantic, completely overdone, possibly sentimental, and just plain weird and nonsensical.

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