- Phantom Skies and Shifting Ground: Landscape, Culture and Rephotography in Eadweard Muybridge's Illustrations of Central America by Byron Wolfe and Scott Brady
Delightful. this was the word that kept coming to me as I slowly savored this book. The photographer Byron Wolfe and geographer Scott Brady retrace and re-photograph Eadweard Muybridge's 1876 travels to Central America. Wolfe previously worked with Rebecca Solnit in a re-photography project of Muybridge's work in Yosemite. Although he was not necessarily keen to do another re-photograpy project, Brady convinced Wolfe that the project might be fruitful. We should all be grateful, as Wolfe's photographs are the stars of this uniquely produced book comprised of reprints, photographs, and textual vignettes. The way in which Wolfe plays with the project of re-photography inspire and quiet us in invited contemplation. The composite images, where Wolfe inserts pieces of Muybridge's photographs into his, are fantastical and whimsical, pointing to both the conjecture of the original photographs and the complex and perhaps futile prospect of a straightforward re-photography project.
After explaining how the project came about, Wolfe describes the pervasive use of stock cloud images by Muybridge. I did not know about Muybridge's use of clouds yet their use does not diminish my appreciation of his photography. Instead, knowing about the additions of clouds or volcanoes enthralled me, as I found them to be traces of Muybridge, his signature and stamp, a creative impulse on a world of landscape photographic drudgery. Wolfe plays with the clouds as a way to consider atmosphere, realism, and the limits of the project itself. Early in the book, he offers a double truck fold out and graphic chart that visually depicts each cloud formation and its frequency of use in one of Muybridge's albums held at Stanford. Wolfe then reconstitutes cloud negatives, without betrayal of location, layering them in a long and lean horizontal [End Page 182] panorama. A collage of various square and rectangle crops of cloud shapes rounds out the visualized narrative of Wolfe's thinking. The result is a kind of accretion of time and culture, wherein Muybridge and Wolfe bleed into one another, the boundaries difficult to pinpoint and discern.
Wolfe's insightful play demonstrates the ways in which the meaning of photographs is never stable. Printed together, these images form something new and current, yet grounded in time and place. The triptych Old Panama Watch Tower is a superb example of this. The three images depict the brick structure in the process of ruin, becoming overcome by vegetation and growth. The shifting light across the photographs conjures an affective quality and when viewed together ask us to reflect on time, landscape, and change. Likewise, in Palace of the President – Panama, an electric lamppost is poised on the left amidst pine trees and palm leaves. Inserted into his color image, Wolfe has carefully placed trimmings of Muybridge's photographs from the same scene. The result is a meditation on the presence of the past in the present. Haunting ghosts seem to imbue the architecture and place, making us wonder about the legacies of colonialism that still reside there.
Another provocative re-photograph is Ancient Sacrificial Stone, which depicts a standing stone that has a small circular cutout that originally framed the staring face of a Guatemalan man. Wolfe layered his color image into Muybridge's black and white, which now features bright green vegetation and a U.S. style housing development. As I looked at the image, I couldn't help but read it as a materialized connection and comment on the capitalism that has transformed sovereign lands into the property of ex-pats. Such thoughtful gestures persist throughout the book, and I found myself wondering about the magical realism in other photographs, such as Wolfe's coffee cup poised so perfectly along the horizon of a...