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ART REVIEW

Lapse of Judgment

It's Still Eadweard Muybridge--but Without the Captured Motion the 19th Century Photographer Is Known For

April 14, 1998|CATHY CURTIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEWPORT BEACH — Eadweard Muybridge? Wasn't he the 19th century photographer who made pioneering time-lapse studies of horses and people?

Right. But you won't find any of those images at the Muybridge exhibition at the Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach. People are moving in some--you can tell by the blurs that replace their faces--but Muybridge surely didn't want them to.

The story of how he came to Panama, Guatemala and Mexico to photograph their vistas, workers and foreign-owned industries is bound up with his relationship to former California Gov. Leland Stanford, millionaire president of the Central Pacific Railroad.

Born Edward James Muggeridge in 1830 in England, Muybridge changed his name to what he believed was its original Anglo-Saxon form. After immigrating to the U.S. as the representative of a London-based publishing company, he opened a bookstore in San Francisco. In the early 1860s, he took up the fledgling field of photography and eventually became known for his landscape views.

Stanford, who owned racehorses, hired Muybridge in 1872 to settle a bet: whether a galloping horse lifts all four feet off the ground at once. The photographer had to temporarily abandon the project when he was tried for the murder of his wife's lover. (He was acquitted--with help from a lawyer friend of Stanford--on the grounds of justifiable homicide.)

Back on the job, Muybridge came up with a new idea: 12 evenly spaced cameras on the racetrack, each equipped with a shutter attached by an electrical contact to a thread the horse would trip as it galloped by. In 1878, Muybridge produced the first photographic evidence that horses are briefly airborne as they gallop.

During a two-year hiatus from Stanford's Palo Alto manse, however, Muybridge was engaged in a different type of work for his patron.

To help his business ventures in Central and South America and to shore up the fortunes of the Pacific Mail Steamship Co.--whose chief rival was, ironically, the transcontinental railroad formed by the meeting of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific lines--Stanford sent Muybridge south on a documentary mission.

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His job, Muybridge wrote, was to record "the ports and the facilities of commerce" as well as "wonderfully beautiful scenes" sure to gratify "the tourist and lovers of the picturesque."

These aims are summed up in the photo montage on the frontispiece to Muybridge's 1877 portfolio of 200-odd albumen prints (titled, in the cumbersome fashion of the day, "The Pacific Coast of Central America and Mexico; The Isthmus of Panama; Guatemala; and the Cultivation of Coffee").

There are images of workmen at a construction site, a woman weaving, bare-breasted women toting baskets of coffee beans on their heads, boats at sunset, thatched huts, the interior of a church and a city panorama. There's also a prominent portrait of a bearded fellow with piercing eyes: Muybridge the Intrepid.

He seems to have lavished the most care on grand vistas such as "Falls of the Michatoya, Guatemala"--a lush image of rushing water, dense, detailed foliage and a gleaming white aqueduct. The experience of photographing nature from a distance would stand him in good stead the following year, when he produced a celebrated panorama of San Francisco.

The figures in his photographs are always viewed from a distance, whether toiling on a coffee plantation or lined up awkwardly with fellow villagers.

You might think Muybridge's seeming aloofness was due to the limitations of his equipment, but he was able to get much closer to an inanimate personage, a "Statue to Columbus," shown with one arm proudly sheltering a miserable-looking crouched female Indian.

Open to the elements, with a tree growing inside, "Ruins of the Church of Santo Domingo, Panama" surely falls into the category of the picturesque. Still, you can't help but think that Muybridge would just as soon have shot the lofty ruin without the children sitting so attentively on the benches inside.

Collector Dan Solomon, who lent 44 photographs from the album to the museum, claims in his brochure essay that the coffee plantation images constitute "one of the earliest photojournalistic essays of an industry."

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In a strict sense, this may be true, but--oddly for a photographer so interested in the sequence of action--the prints don't give viewers a clear idea of how coffee is processed. The laconic labels offer no help, and they're all bunched up at the end of a sequence, obliging viewers to dash back and forth.

All in all, lacking historical or anthropological context (shouldn't this have been provided by the museum?), these photographs are not compelling.

When a pleasant but unremarkable coastal image is labeled merely "Aspinwall From the Lighthouse," it does not inspire scrutiny. A more coherent sampling of the images also might have made a better case for Muybridge's achievements.

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