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

Reading Muybridge

By Byron Wolfe

Reading most photographs - and Muybridge pictures in particular - requires a simultaneous attention to visual details that reference the physical reality of a recorded moment, along with a suspension of belief in any kind of complete truth of the image. Here’s an example. The picture La Libertad, El Salvador appears in two different Muybridge albums, one held at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, the other at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona. When viewed independently, each image appears to be a relatively straightforward depiction of a moment in time with a solitary figure gazing contemplatively over the railing of a pier that extends into the bay at La Libertad and towards the camera. When the two pictures are seen together in the following animation, subtle details that vary from one image to another become more prominent. As I’m fond of telling my students, manipulation in photography did not begin with digital cameras and Photoshop, and the following animation provides evidence of that proposition.

There are very practical reasons for the insertion of clouds into the scenes. It was a procedure devised to address the technical limitations of the medium at the time; glass plate films of the era were significantly more sensitive to blue light than the other colors of the visual spectrum and that meant that skies and clouds were typically rendered as pure white in a final print. Blank skies in photographs were clearly considered to be a shortcoming of the medium, so photographers often made separate exposures of cloud-filled scenes that would more effectively register the delicate details of atmosphere. Then, the two separate negatives, sky and scene, could be sandwiched together and projected onto a piece of photographic paper to render a new view, complete with ethereal matter. Muybridge was especially adept at the practice of adding clouds to scenes and it’s an approach he used extensively throughout his career. This method of combination printing is one that Muybridge uses in countless images, often using different clouds with the same landscapes and yielding results that range from sublime to ordinary to downright absurd. The difficulty of recording the entire dynamic range of high contrast landscape scenes is problematic to this very day.

The following animation visually analyzes Muybridge’s use of clouds in the same landscape scene.

This kind of visual analysis also led to other discoveries about Muybridge’s patterns of description. The animation at right shows how Muybridge used an identical photographic and illustrative approach to two completely different scenes from different countries. Identifying these kinds of patterns of vision are often possible when looking at large numbers of pictures made by the same photographer.

Perhaps most of all, I was intrigued by Muybridge's use of cloud negatives in combination printing. He obviously had a collection of cloud pictures that he could shuffle through in order to forge just the right form of land and sky. I imagined this cloud collection as a wooden box filled with carefully filed glass plate negatives, arranged and indexed according to visual and aesthetic properties. The thought of this imaginary box with clouds inside prompted a whole string of questions: How were the clouds organized and named? How did Muybridge decide what clouds went with each landscape? Did he have favorites? Where did the cloud scenes originate? Would it be possible to reconstruct his original cloud pictures by taking bits and pieces from existing pictures? The imagery and animations that follow emerged from considering these questions.

The impetus for the entire project was our combined effort to track down and rephotograph original Muybridge views. The premise of rephotography is most easily understood as “then” and “now,” a conceptual framework I’ve grown to dislike as it implies that the “then” is a digestible, comprehensible moment, as is the “now” (the complex and tangled meaning of both the individual and combined moments is discussed at length in the first chapter of the book. A very brief sample can be read here). Nonetheless, the form itself is quite interesting for comparing views across time and is most often shown as two similarly framed scenes, presented side by side.

More often than not, however, rephotographing Muybridge’s interpretive pictures required an almost improvisational attitude and a way to emphasize specific details to concisely engage in a dialogue between images. One such approach is the form of the “embedded panorama” in which the contemporary image shows a considerably wider view and a Muybridge picture, or perhaps a detail from an historic picture, is placed within the frame of the new. To some degree, this form places the emphasis upon the breadth of the contemporary moment to perhaps communicate what it was like to stand at a spot to contemplate what was no longer there.

Another approach is to “reverse the field” in a way that adds an element from the contemporary scene to an original Muybridge. Gazing back upon a modest tree, Puenta Del Rey, Panamá City, Panamá is an example of trying to emphasize one important element of the original - a stone bridge that’s caught in the act of being consumed by a tangled mess of tree roots - with a contemporary view that neatly frames a smaller, possibly more controlled tree in the distance. This relationship was not unlike the feeling that Scott and I often had from looking at Muybridge’s pictures that depicted decayed "historic sites" that were now cleaned up and actively preserved, as if they improved with age then were frozen in amber (for more on this topic, see Scott's essay Enduring Landmarks in the physical book).

Some of the visual analysis in Phantom Skies examines how Muybridge carved out or depicted a place by showing how the content in his images sometimes connected in physical space. Seven views of Las Nubes is an example of such an analysis.

Although Muybridge’s Central American photographs may appear at first glance to be static and antiquated scenes of a bygone era, knowing more about how they were constructed and how they function can reveal them to be active and dynamic documents that practically demand interpretation and consideration about what they mean to us today.

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