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Muybridge photos questioned by Getty curator

June 23, 2010 | 10:27 am
Eadweard Muybridge Wm. Vick Studio, Ipswich The history of California art is entwined with the history of photography, since the state and the camera both emerged at roughly the same moment in the mid-19th century. Over at the Modern Art Notes blog, both histories are undergoing a fascinating shakeup.

"Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change" is a landmark exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, the first retrospective to examine all aspects of the photographs made by the famous California artist between 1858 and 1893. At least, maybe they were all made by Muybridge -- and maybe not.

I haven't seen it, but during a walk-through of the show with blogger Tyler Green, the Getty Museum's distinguished former curator of photographs, Weston Naef, made some startling observations. Consider two facts: There's no evidence that Muybridge learned the new, technically complicated photographic process in the 1850s or 1860s; yet, highly sophisticated photographs long attributed to him begin to appear almost from the moment he arrived in San Francisco from London in 1866 or 1867.

How could that be? How could a guy start turning out masterpieces right out of the gate, immediately after first picking up a camera (or lugging it, given the size of the machinery of the day)?

Naef's explanation: It's likely that those early Muybridge photographs were published by him but not taken by him.

Instead, they were probably made by others -- most notably by Carleton Watkins, the brilliant photographer whose complete catalog of photographs Naef has long been working on. (The curator's last great Getty show was 2008's "Dialogue Among Giants: Carleton Watkins and the Rise of Photography in California." Here's my review.) If he's right -- and his reasoning is certainly provocative -- the histories of photography and California art are about to be significantly revised.

Modern Art Notes has been unfolding a multi-part interview with Naef, plus Corcoran curator Philip Brookman, over the last few days. It's engrossing, with lots to chew on. The posts begin here.

After the show closes in Washington on July 18, it travels to the Tate Britain in London (Sept. 8-Jan. 16, 2011)  and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (Feb. 26-June 7, 2011). What other photography historians and curators have to say about the dispute will be very interesting to see.

-- Christopher Knight
twitter.com/KnightLAT

Photo: Eadweard Muybridge. Credit: Wm. Vick Studio, Ipswich

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