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

Project Overview

Phantom Skies and Shifting Ground is a collaborative research project and publication (print and online) that responds to the largely unknown late 19th-century photographs of Central America by Eadweard Muybridge. The photographs are significant as a benchmark for one of the largest and earliest bodies of photographic representation in Central America. The sometimes dark and moody pictures were taken during a two-year expedition immediately following Muybridge's involvement in a scandalous murder trial. Guided by Muybridge's sophisticated but problematic combination prints that merge multiple negatives into seamless views, photographer Byron Wolfe and cultural geographer Dr. Scott Brady traced Muybridge's travels through Guatemala and Panama to create photographic and textual analyses of the sites, spaces, and cultures they encountered. Through the practice of rephotography - photographing the same subject from the same perspective - Wolfe initiates a dialogue with Muybridge over a divide of 130 years.

Brady uses Muybridge’s photos as visual benchmarks for Latin American life and landscapes in the 1870s. He considers Muybridge’s images as historical records of landscapes and seeks to trace how sites have evolved over the 130 years between Muybridge’s travels and his own. Brady’s notes and essays reflect upon landscape change, his years of Latin American fieldwork, and the journeys that he and Wolfe made. 

Constantly questioning the reliability of observation and the stability of the geography, Phantom Skies locates the representation of place - both then and now - in invention, reinvention, and reflection.

This site is intended as a supplement to the print publication. Animations and videos are presented to help introduce the visual language and subsequent interpretation of Muybridge's photographs. There are numerous samples of original Muybridge photographs, rephotographs and responses, as well as two field note essays. Additional collateral material such as a bibliography and an index of institutions that hold rare Muybridge albums is also available on this site and will be updated if and when new materials are discovered. The site is intended for a general audience interested in the topics of Eadweard Muybridge, historic landscape photography, rephotography, and cultural geography. The printed book delves into each of these topics with more depth.

The printed publication contains considerably more written and visual material including an essay by Byron Wolfe that explores our expectations for truth and meaning in photography and rephotography. It also examines Muybridge's constructed photographic imagery and considers why his highly interpretive practice has value to us today. In a section titled Why the fake volcano matters, he offers one of the first critiques of rephotography as a practice entangled with ambiguity and impossibility. published an abridged version of the introductory essay in an article title Eadweard Muybridge's Secret Cloud Collection.

Two of Brady's field note essays are included here, one of which has not been published before. In the printed volume there are 11 essays distributed throughout that provide a thematic structure to the text as well as a textured description of field research and some of the questions that guided the collaborators. The printed visual material includes a mini-portfolio of 16 Muybridge pictures with his original catalog advertisement and picture index, 34 interpretations of original Muybridge views, and 40 rephotographic responses. 

To see a preview of the physical book and to order a copy, please visit Temple University Press.  

This site was designed to be viewed in a linear fashion starting with the "Overview" and proceeding in order until the "Bibliography." This structure is intended to guide a viewer through the different formal elements of the project with Muybridge's photographs as the principal and enduring source of investigations. The physical publication is organized around themes and questions that emerged during the project with writing and imagery in support of those themes.

Navigation of this site is possible through an index accessible in the upper left corner, or by selecting the blue button at the bottom of each page. The Phantom Skies site was authored using SCALAR, a platform intended to develop and share sustainable platforms for publishing interactive and rich media scholarship.

The authors gratefully acknowledge the many individuals and institutions who have helped throughout the project.

Byron Wolfe and Scott Brady
May, 2017

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