Art review

Frame of reference: Blake Gopnik on Eadweard Muybridge show 'Helios' at Corcoran

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 10, 2010

"Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change," a show that opens Saturday at the Corcoran -- it's one of the gallery's most significant events in years -- is full of fabulous art that's a pleasure to see. The very best of this work, the celebrated action shots of animals and people that Muybridge took in the 1880s, also raises an intriguing question: Who should take credit for it? Do we praise Muybridge, the pioneering photographer who took the pictures? Or should credit go to Marcel Duchamp and his peers, who, in paintings like "Nude Descending a Staircase," ran with the artistic potential in such photos? We might even want to declare that the true maker of this art is Corcoran curator Philip Brookman, who organized this survey, the world's first comprehensive study of Muybridge: By hanging Muybridge's pictures on the museum wall, Brookman is the one who gets us looking at them with aesthetic eyes. Or could it be that it's us, doing that looking, who really make these photos into art -- that their beauty is only in the eyes of us beholders?

Muybridge arrived on the artistic scene at just the moment when such questions were coming into play. Before the advent of photography in 1839, pretty much all pictures counted as art. (Muybridge, born into the middle class in England in 1830, took up photography in San Francisco in 1867.) For centuries, the skills you needed to paint a fancy portrait hadn't been much different, in kind at least, from the ones you needed for a humble shop sign. Some great painters, such as Antoine Watteau, made both. The simple act of rendering the world in paint was art's signature gesture.

By the time of Muybridge's death, back home again in England in 1904, the gap between an avant-garde that made important art and mere "picturemakers," who illustrated ads or took photos for catalogues, was on its way to becoming a chasm. Just capturing the world counted as trivial and mechanical; a truly modern artist had to rethink and reconfigure it.

Some of Muybridge's first successful photos seem to acknowledge such issues, if only in a kind of rear-guard action: These pictures go out of their way to look as much like old-fashioned arty paintings as they can. The landscapes Muybridge shot in Yosemite Valley in the early 1870s are stunning. They achieve some of the same sublimity and grandeur as canvases by J.M.W. Turner or Albert Bierstadt. To make his photos as impressive and romantic as he could, Muybridge climbed the peaks of Yosemite with a "mammoth-plate" camera, a monster machine that recorded preternaturally sharp pictures on 17-by-22-inch sheets of glass, which had to be sensitized on-site and exposed while they were wet. They provided, in Muybridge's own words, "the highest artistic treatment the subject affords," capturing "the vast grandeur and pictorial beauty for which our State and Coast have so world-wide a reputation." (It's not clear why Muybridge first left England for America -- he returned home more than once -- but he soon identified himself with his new land.)

A change of scenery

In 1875, Muybridge went further afield, taking a somewhat smaller glass-plate camera with him on a steamer tour of Central America, where he captured the classic romance of Spanish colonial ruins. (This commission took him out of San Francisco at a convenient moment: He'd recently killed his young wife's lover, but squeaked by with an acquittal in court -- part of his defense had been that only someone already unbalanced would take the risks that Muybridge did in Yosemite, just to get a picture. Muybridge may have escaped conviction, but doubts and scandal lingered.) All these gorgeous early Muybridges were meant to look like art, and they do. What they don't achieve is all that much that's novel. Muybridge's true contribution comes when he is more concerned with the information captured in his pictures than with their look -- when he's acting more like a scientist than like an artist.

There are hints of this already early on in his career, in the many stereoscopic views included in this show. As art historian Rosalind Krauss noted many years ago, you can't judge a 3-D photo by the same standards you'd use for the same picture in 2-D. Classic aesthetic notions of composition -- even maybe of authorship -- start to fall apart when a viewer feels immersed in a world, rather than poised at some neutral, contemplative distance from it. Look through the 3-D glasses that come with a ticket to the Corcoran show, and you're presented with many images that are more about the sheer quantity of data they contain than artful appearances.

In a series of stereographs that Muybridge shot in 1873 about the Modoc War -- a tragic Indian rebellion soon crushed by U.S. troops -- a good number of pictures record nothing more than the strange, almost lunar setting where the military action took place. Its cratered landscape continues almost uninflected from one edge of Muybridge's photos to the other, yielding pictures that look more like the recent photographic art of Lee Friedlander than like anything Victorian aesthetes might have enjoyed. If we now see these old photographs as interesting art, that's because they seem to break away from standard artistic cliches -- even if the man who shot them didn't have any such departure in mind.

A few years later, Muybridge used his mammoth-plate camera to shoot a 360-degree, 13-image panorama of San Francisco from its highest point, taking in the entire horizon. The result has few traditional aesthetic features -- there aren't many choices you can make in such a project, which mostly demands just pivoting your camera on its axis. The visual excitement we moderns now read into these photos' peculiar angles and fortuitous compositions was probably invisible to the original patrons. They cared so much about the facts shown in such panoramas that they could ignore the way they were shown.

That also must have been true of the images of living creatures in motion that made Muybridge internationally famous. The project began in 1873, then really took off in 1876 under the patronage of Leland Stanford, a California politician and tycoon who raced and bred horses. Stanford had enlisted Muybridge's help in understanding what made for an excellent equestrian gait -- and in resolving the long-standing debate about whether a galloping horse ever has all four legs off the ground. (They do.) Muybridge's first high-speed sequential photos were made to serve such practical ends, rather than his muse.

Muybridge's non-art project did seem likely to have artistic consequences: The photographer thought that, thanks to him, the painting of horses in motion would never be the same. But the artists who were most keen on his efforts -- Thomas Eakins in the United States, Ernest Meissonier in France -- were from a rear guard that bought into the old, pre-photographic model that equated all art with realistic representation. Muybridge made his greatest works at precisely the moment when the truly most important artists of the avant-garde didn't have much need of them, at least on the terms he intended.

A strategic move

Muybridge's most ambitious photographic campaign, which yielded the 781 plates of the "Animal Locomotion" portfolio he began in 1884, was the result of a research project supported by the University of Pennsylvania. (The Corcoran was one of several other academic institutions that soon bought the finished portfolio. Significantly, the Muybridges owned by the Corcoran have spent most of their lives in the library of its art school rather than in the vaults of its museum.)

The importance of Muybridge's photos, shot in facilities provided by the university, was seen as mostly scientific: They had implications for anatomy, physiology and the new "science" of physical fitness. Recently, scholars have also set the creation of "Animal Locomotion" into the context of the university's pseudo-scientific studies on race and on the then-new epidemic of neurasthenia -- a kind of nervous collapse said to be brought on by the speed of modernity. What scholars don't seem to have found is any record of properly artistic intentions behind the locomotion photos.

Muybridge's stop-action images of greyhounds and elephants, of mothers and blacksmiths, of athletes and the disabled, are fascinating things: They chop continuous experience into component parts, almost as Monet and Seurat tried to do with vision and color. They spread time and motion across a single picture's surface, undermining notions of stasis and stability -- of the single, truthful view -- that had ruled in art for centuries. The destabilizing strangeness of their look, rather than the quantity and authority of their information, is what turned out to matter most in them. It's what the cubists and futurists and other modernist radicals spotted in Muybridge in the decades following his death. It's what we still appreciate the most in his images, a century later. It's why the Corcoran's 300-object show, despite its sprawl, makes for such a fascinating visit.

There's just one visitor who I'm pretty sure would find this exhibition strange, even off-putting: Muybridge himself. We have clearly found art we love in his photos, and profited from it. He might not be sure he put it there.


Eadweard Muybridge

in a Time of Change

Through July 18 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW. Call 202-639-1700 or visit

© 2010 The Washington Post Company