- Circles of Confusion: Film/Photography/Video Texts, 1968-1980Our PickBy Hollis Frampton
- Motion Studies: Time, Space and Eadweard MuybridgeOur PickBy Rebecca Solnit
- Eadweard Muybridge (Critical Lives)By Marta Braun
Important Art by Eadweard Muybridge
This photograph shows a waterfall from above, positioned so that the water cascading down the cliff is in the lower half of the frame, slightly right of centre, while the upper portion of the frame shows trees and rocks. The image is cropped such that the sky is not visible and the position from which the photograph has been taken is unclear, creating a sense of instability in the viewer. The vertical lines of the limestone and the trees above, along with the portrait orientation of the photograph, reinforce the waterfall's downward pull. The waterfall is exposed such that it dissolves into a white blur, misting on the rocks at the lower edge of the image.
This was one of many photographs that Muybridge took around Yosemite, which had become an iconic part of Californian identity by 1860. Muybridge takes a romantic approach to the landscape, emphasising Yosemite's dizzying scale and creating a sense of contrast between the solid rock, evenly exposed, and the uncontrolled motion of the waterfall. He chose a subject that had been heavily represented in nineteenth century European art, registering as sublime and mythic, evoking a sense of awe. Muybridge's approach, like that of many other 19th-century photographers, valued aesthetics over honesty; he was known for cutting down trees which blocked the views he wanted and adding rocks and clouds in the darkroom. Muybridge was best known, however, for the heights to which he would climb, carrying heavy equipment, and for the dangerous positions in which he would place himself in order to secure shots such as this, inspiring awe among his audience.
This panorama, commissioned by the United States Army to document the Modoc War, show an encampment on the banks of Tule Lake. Muybridge has taken the three images that comprise the panorama from a signal station above the army camp; the many tents and figures shown are small against the vast landscape, which occupies the bulk of the frame. The horizon line is close to the upper limit of the picture plain and the lake stretches beside and behind the encampment, creating a sense of the vastness of inland California and Oregon.
At this point, the Modoc War dominated the news, but it was also almost over. In 1872, violence broke out after the US Army arrested the Native American Kinstspuash, who led the Modoc resistance against forced resettlement. Muybridge's photographs were intended to capture the territory on which the battles had been fought both for reporting and for future reference. The Modocs had fled by the time Muybridge arrived, meaning that the photographer fictionalised many images in order to convey an impression that battles were ongoing outside the encampment, labelling military scouts as Modocs and shooting images in which soldiers posed in ways that implied ongoing warfare. Muybridge's choice to photograph this panorama from above, with the camp in the foreground and the flat landscape receding into the distance, shorn of detail by the distance from which the image is taken, creates an impression of the landscape as barren, heightening the viewer's sense of the army as pioneers, rather than invaders. The panorama, like the group of which it forms a part, is an early example of photography's role in shaping public opinion and of Muybridge's own ability to subtly construct images that position themselves as documentation so as to conceal their propaganda purposes.
This panorama of San Francisco consists of thirteen prints, each measuring eighteen by twenty-two inches. These images afford the audience a view of the growing city in 360 degrees, with Powell Street, Pine Street and California Street guiding the eye from the foreground toward the background, where Yerba Buena Island, Angel Island and Alcatraz appear at various points on the horizon, along with houses in various directions, growing smaller. The mammoth plates used by Muybridge afford an unprecedented level of detail in each print, with architectural details, vehicles and ships in the harbour's haze all rendered legibly.
Muybridge's panorama offers a document of San Francisco's cityscape which operates as a testament to the capitalist class with whom the photographer aligned himself. Muybridge surveys the city from Nob Hill, home to San Francisco's business leaders, emphasising their centrality through the positioning of their properties in the foreground and creating a sense of power and ownership over the surveyed. The hotels, public and commercial buildings and private houses all operate as objects of civic pride and as testament to the city's growth; the ships in the harbour and the presence of vehicles in the streets of the panorama emphasise San Francisco's place as a commercial hub. It is impossible for the viewer to take in the entirety of the panorama at once; instead, the set of photographs demand physical movement, involving audiences in the drama of the image. This impresses Muybridge's technical mastery on the viewer; while mammoth plates had previously been used for panoramic cityscapes, including in San Francisco, Muybridge was ambitious in his decision to show the city in 360 degrees. The scale of this group of photographs allowed San Francisco to be captured and displayed in a way that defies the limitations of human sight.