Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

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10 / The Natural World

Falls of the Yosemite
Falls of the Yosemite
Artist / Origin Eadweard Muybridge (British, emigrated to the US, 1830–1904)
Region: North America
Date 1872–1873
Material Albumen print
Dimensions H: 21 ¼(54 cm.), W: 16 ¾ in. (42.5 cm.)
Location Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT
Credit Courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of Harrison A. Augur

expert perspective

Robin Jaffee FrankSenior Associate Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture, Yale University Art Gallery

Falls of the Yosemite

» Eadweard Muybridge (British, emigrated to the US, 1830–1904)

expert perspective

Robin Jaffee Frank Robin Jaffee Frank Senior Associate Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture, Yale University Art Gallery

It would be interesting to look at snapshots that people are taking today in comparison with let’s say a photograph by Carleton Watkins or Muybridge. We might find that even today, many Americans or even Europeans who come to visit this country and go out West, for example, that the snapshots that they choose to take are still very much influenced by the compositional formats that were used by painters and photographers in the nineteenth century. Because that is still today our mythic image of the American wilderness, the American frontier, as forever awaiting settlement, forever pristine, forever open to all of our hopes and dreams, of communion with nature, and of a vision for what this nation is and could be. Yosemite, for example, which was so different in the new world—something so different, something that you could never find in the old world—our treasures, our riches. In a sense, you know photography, at that time, was really thought of as truth. You have to imagine yourself back in that wrenching emotional landscape.

Those photographs were so compelling and their pristine nature was so promising, that Americans were afraid to awaken to the fact that we could spoil that wilderness. We could chop down those trees. We could take our heritage and destroy it. That fear led Olmstead, who as we all know was the architect for Central Park, to draft a proposal to Congress, asking for Yosemite Valley—those peaks, that valley, that wilderness—to be preserved for future generations. And in the midst of this wrenching apart of the nation, Abraham Lincoln in 1864, signs this proposal to protect Yosemite forever. And that is such a symbol of hope—hope that the Union would prevail, hope that there would be a future, that these landscapes, which so capture America’s identity and our spiritual identification with the landscape—they were so powerful and so compelling that they convinced the American government that we needed to preserve our wilderness.” 

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