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

Looking at Landscapes

While Byron worked, I passed the time with local savants.

Byron scrutinized copies of Muybridge’s images, oriented himself, set up his tripod and draped himself in his trusty black t-shirt.

Meanwhile, I often wandered about with my own copies of Muybridge’s images. Frequentlywhether in a town plaza, a cornfield, or at the mouth of the Rio ChagresI met locals who were interested in the old photographs. Our shared interest led to pleasant encounters. Sometimes the locals explained the scenes that Muybridge captured. Sometimes they described the changes that had ensued. I appreciated their instruction. However, I most valued their attention to their landscapes.

The study of landscape is a fundamental component of geography that often is overshadowed by cartographic representations of human and physical patterns on Earth’s surface. I am reminded of this tendency every fall semester when I teach an upper division course called American Cultural Landscapes. My students are geography majors, usually in their last year of study. They have learned how to create geographic information systems that allow them to analyze spatial data. They can use software that allows them to create images of Earth’s surface.

I challenge my students to look at local landscapes and to describe them. I also give them historic photographs of local landscapes and ask them to explain what has happened. It is a challenge. Some students are uncomfortable being embedded in the object of study. They are accustomed to analyzing Earth from the confines of a computer lab. Others struggle with landscape description. They don’t have a vocabulary for what they are seeing in the landscape. Others wonder why they should be asked to look at a landscape.

I suppose it is the last group that makes me value the men in hammocks pictured on this page. They allowed me to interrupt their gathering, listened to my spiel, looked at my pictures, shared their rum, and looked at their landscape.

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