Art Through Time: A Global View
The Natural World Art: Falls of the Yosemite
Eadweard Muybridge (1830–1904) was an English expatriate who rose to prominence as a photographer in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century.
During this period, when the medium was still new, many a photographer sought to make a name for himself by capturing the beauty of the western landscape. Muybridge distinguished himself by going to unprecedented lengths to take the most memorable photographs. To enhance the majesty of his photographs, Muybridge took them with a mammoth-plate camera, which produced incredibly large landscape images. He cut down trees to achieve the best views and hauled his heavy camera to such dangerous and precarious locations that even his guides refused to follow him.
Taken during an epic six-month trip West in 1872, Falls of the Yosemite is a prime example of Muybridge’s daring. It also exemplifies his painterly approach to photography. Unlike his competitor Carl Watkins, whose images were highly structured with sharp contours, Muybridge chose to give his photographs more ethereal atmospheric effects. In Falls of Yosemite, for instance, the lone figure perched on a precipice overlooking the valley appears shrouded in mist. The result of Muybridge’s technique was both striking and serene.
Muybridge is probably best known for his photographic studies involving the movements of humans and animals, a series of projects he embarked on after his studies in the West. However, his views of Yosemite are among the most memorable images of the California valley from that era. Displayed in hotels in the eastern United States and Europe, his images were intended to entice tourists to Yosemite and the surrounding region. Whether or not they accomplished this goal, Muybridge’s photographs undoubtedly contributed to fantasies about and fascination with the American West. At the same time, they influenced the compositions of generations of artists, amateur photographers, and sightseers with cameras. It might be said, therefore, that Muybridge played a role in shaping the way we look at landscapes even today.
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.”
Gidley, Mick, and Robert Lawson-Peebles. Views of American Landscapes.Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 2007.
Ogden, Kate Nearpass. “God’s Great Plow and the Scripture of Nature: Art and Geology at Yosemite.” California History 71.1 (Spring 1992): 88–109.
Ogden, Kate Nearpass. “Sublime Vistas and Scenic Backdrops: Nineteenth-Century Painters and Photographers at Yosemite.” California History 69.2 (Summer 1990): 134–153.
Sandweiss, Martha A. Print the Legend: Photography and the American West.New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.
Scott, Amy. Yosemite: Art of an American Icon. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006.
Solnit, Rebecca. River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West. New York: Viking, 2003.