Muybridge's Canter Through Central America

Eadweard Muybridge's 1875 photos of the plaza in Guatemala City, above, contrast the colonial influence with, below, the traditional native dress in
Eadweard Muybridge's 1875 photos of the plaza in Guatemala City, above, contrast the colonial influence with, below, the traditional native dress in "Coffee Harvesting at San Isidro." (Photos Courtesy Of Smithsonian American Art Museum)
By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 1, 2007

Some artists start off good and slowly get better.

Others start off great, then fall away.

And others -- such as the great American photographer Eadweard Muybridge -- have a eureka moment that turns aptitude into excellence.

For Muybridge, that moment famously came when a wealthy patron asked him to find a way to prove that all four of a galloping horse's legs can be off the ground at once. The camera system Muybridge came up with allowed humans to pull motion apart as they never could before. Muybridge's freeze-frame images were art themselves (though it took some time for that to be universally recognized) and also had a profound effect on other artists.

A show called "Eadweard Muybridge: The Central American Journey," at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, gives us a glimpse of the pre-gallop, pre-genius Muybridge. Its three rooms present 60 photographs taken by Muybridge on a trip south in 1875. The year before, he'd shot and killed his wife's lover, and though he was acquitted, it still seemed a good idea to get away from San Francisco for a while. His trip also seemed a good idea to the Pacific Mail Steamship Co., which paid his way. Threatened by competition from the new railroads, Pacific Mail imagined that a suite of images of the lands it served, by an award-winning landscape photographer -- Muybridge was that, already -- could only help the prospects for the tourism and commerce its business depended on.

Pacific Mail got what it paid for. Most of Muybridge's photos are stunningly crisp, attractively crafted records of the places he visited in Panama, Guatemala and ports of call in Mexico and further south. They'd be perfect for a deluxe tourist brochure or chamber-of-commerce report -- which is more or less what they were meant for. Only a few are fully picturesque, in Old Master painting terms. (Muybridge's big accomplishment was in his landscapes' skies: The film of his day was oversensitive to blue, so skies with clouds in them tended to bleach out to a uniform white. By making a separate negative exposed just for the top half of his frame, he could darken it to dramatic effect.) More interesting, however, are a handful of images that foreshadow, maybe, Muybridge's later, more "scientific" take on things. They don't clean up the world they show; they show it as it is.

"Coffee Harvesting at San Isidro," for instance, is a view down a high plantation path, with workers carting ladders and the harvest down its length. What's touching -- to our eyes, at least -- is the fact that the men are in traditional Indian dress; the women, too, and without tops, as they'd always gone before missionary interference. We're witnessing the very moment when globalization first transformed the Guatemalan way of life. It took native farmers off small plots and yoked them to the plantation economy of the international coffee trade.

Another photograph, titled "Shipping Coffee, Champerico, Guatemala," shows the end point in that process. Scantily clad locals load big sacks of coffee into boats, then row them out to a steamer at sea, almost level with the horizon. It's a poignant image of wealth heading abroad.

And once you've been sensitized by such moments in Muybridge's vision, even his "straight" shots bear revisiting. An elegant image of the plaza in Guatemala City at first seems a celebration of colonial culture. A lovely classical fountain fills the foreground, while a splendid baroque church fills whatever space is left inside the frame. But then, at the very point that's nearest us as we look on, a tiny figure, wearing a traditional Indian shawl, stares at us in silent contemplation. He may be overshadowed by the European architecture, but he's not prepared to disappear.

Eadweard Muybridge: The Central American Journey is on view through April 29 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, at Eighth and F streets NW. Call 202-633-1000 or visit

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