Student Review: “Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change” at SFMOMA

1986eef8bf543710e65a338670cb3461by Stephanie Jung
PH51 Beginning Photography, CCSF

Having not stepped foot inside the SFMOMA for years, I was immediately taken by how beautiful the building was. All the geometric architecture and interesting things to look at made me think about how the SFMOMA is a work of art in itself. As I took to the stairs to meet our classes’ gracious docent, Lisa Sutcliffe, I admired the delightful mix of visitors in the museum–a mix of tourists, students, and art lovers. I was eager to begin our guided tour.

Upon reaching the third floor, our Photo 51 class met Lisa Sutcliffe, SFMOMA Assistant Curator of Photography. She asked our group, made up of two Beginning Photography classes, about our knowledge of the exhibition’s focus, Edward Muybridge. I was pleased to find that our section was well versed on the life and work of Muybridge. After her brief intro of the exhibition, we moved into the first room, which showcased Muybridge’s earliest work. The exhibition is organized chronologically. I found this to be quite helpful in learning not only about Muybridge, but also about the evolution of photography.

Sutcliffe spoke a great deal about Muybridge’s personal life, referencing his knack for marketing himself. I found the stories of his move to the United States in 1850, settling in San Francisco, and building a business on Montgomery Street extremely interesting. For some reason, it added more personal interest because Muybridge lived and in photographed California. Muybridge’s history of changing the spelling of his first and last name was also amusing to me. I found his personal story intriguing because no one exactly knows how Muybridge learned photography.

The exhibit is entitled “Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change”. “Helios” is the Greek personification of the sun, which is an allusion to the popular 19th Century description of photographs as “sun pictures”. Muybridge wanted to shoot places that were considered exotic, and at the time, San Francisco was just that. The photos in the exhibition had a yellow cast, which Sutcliffe later revealed that this was because the photographs were made with albumen from egg whites long before gelatin silver prints were invented. One of the remarkable things about this exhibition was Muybridge’s place in the history of photography.

Muybridge photographed the building of the Intercontinental Railroad, and was revered for his pictures and their display of the Railroad’s architecture. In 1872, he began shooting a set of 500 photos of Yosemite. These photos were some of my favorites of the show. As a child, I spent numerous summers in Yosemite, and I loved seeing the serene beauty of the valley captured in Muybridge’s work. In a photograph titled “Mount Hoffman, Sierra Nevada Mountains. From Lake Tenaya No. 48”, Muybridge’s gift for photographing landscapes was apparent to me. I was blown away by the clarity of the water, the texture of the rocks, and the striking contrast in the photo. The photograph was incredibly calm, the composition simple and following the Rule of Thirds. The mountains seem majestic because of the upward angle of the camera. Although there is a lot of visual information in the picture, it isn’t cluttered. The trees lead our eyes to the mountain formations, and the soft, moving water grounds the photo. Sutcliffe spoke about Muybridge’s use of “early Photoshop” to create the perfect composition. I loved learning that he used a second negative for the clouds because he couldn’t expose for both the sky and scene at the same time. Because of this, some clouds are repeated in different photographs. As a graphic designer, I find this to be so inspirational. Muybridge went the extra mile to create the perfect image, even with limited technology.

From 1870-1880, Muybridge documented San Francisco and architectural landmarks extensively. One of his greatest accomplishments was a panoramic photo of San Francisco. This became a great record of buildings in San Francisco before the 1906 earthquake. I found these photos so awe-inspiring. I would like to research his techniques further. The panorama seemed so seamless and well executed.

Muybridge is also very well know for “The Horse in Motion”, which he began experimenting with from 1872-1878. In 1872, railroad magnate, politician, and horse racing enthusiast Leland Stanford commissioned Muybridge to photography his horse. Muybridge had to develop new technology for short sequences of Stanford’s horse. The photo “Horses, Running, Phyrne L. Plate 40 from the Altitudes of Animals in Motion” depicted horses in motion. This piece was a beautiful print that shows such breakthrough in science. I especially loved the black silhouettes of the horses and the framing of each shot. This work later evolved into the earliest versions of motion pictures.

Eadweard Muybridge’s work is quite beautiful and this exhibition lays out a great collection of his photographs for those interested in photography, and for those who may be new to taking pictures. I enjoyed learning a little about the history of the early days of photography. These large prints make beginning photographers such as myself admire the amount of work and talent it took before digital cameras were invented. For an excellent retrospective on the work of Muybridge, come visit “Helios”, running at SFMOMA from February 26 – June 7, 2011 at 151 Third Street in San Francisco, CA.

One thought on “Student Review: “Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change” at SFMOMA

  1. Good article. I like how you give it a personal touch rather than a boring essay. Good work. I’ve done a couple of photo classes at CCSF so far and it has improved my eye for picture-taking. Digital actually has not been around that long. Film photography has been around 150 years at least!


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