In Search of Edweard Muybridge

In Search of Edweard Muybridge

Last winter I read a most wonderful book about Edweard Muybridge, the photographer known widely for his motion studies. The book, by Rebecca Solnit, is called River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West.  If you have not read it, I recommend that you do, not only for it’s in-depth look at the life and work of Muybridge but also as a history of the Wild West, the railroads and early San Fransisco.  Partly in  search of that American West, this past Spring, the Road Trip Maestro (who prefers to be anonymous) and I  drove to Oakland and then back towards Seattle through the beautiful National Forests of Northern California.  We went to Lava Beds National Monument right on the Oregon/California border where Muybridge had been hired by the US Army to photograph the tired, senseless war it was waging against the Modoc People who were making a stand against the federal “relocation” of their culture, their life, their history.   Since it was next to impossible to photograph this ridiculous war, Muybridge, in 1873, made photographs from a rock known as Signal Station looking down on Tule Lake and the Army encampment  near the Lava Beds. He put together a panorama from the stereotypes he made there which Rebecca Solnit reproduced in her book.

We wanted to re-capture the same photographs Muybridge made some 143 years earlier, minus of course the Army encampment. Much had changed in the landscape.  All that was left of the encampment were two historical Army structures visible in the Muybridge photographs:  a large square stone fence to the South was apparently a wall around a temporary cemetery and a small round stone structure to the North is believed to have been a corral of some sort.  We parked in the hot, empty parking lot (visible in our photograph) and went looking for the place Muybridge stood to take his photographs. Tule Lake has almost disappeared. In its place, a  rich farmland stretches out to the east. On the distant horizon are low hills, not visible in the Muybridge’s images. Was it a hazy day when he took his photograph?  Why were those hills not visible then?

We climbed around the cliffs;  they were steep and the afternoon was bright and hot  even though it was early April. We saw lizards and lots of coyote scat and watched out for snakes. I headed up the hill on the right-hand side of Muybridge’s panorama. The RTM (Road Trip Maestro) climbed the cliff, up and up to the base of a large rock.  It was Signal Station seen in the featured image for this post. The two stone enclosures were clearly visible from below.  It was the spot!  The RTM lined up the shot and we fired away.  Then we sat and thought about Muybridge in that same place. Such a complicated figure, a mixture of genius, scalawag and fiction. So mysterious. Quickly, we gathered up the equipment and raced down the hill, chased by ghosts perhaps and the need to get back to the safety of the car (and the dog whom we had left there). When we arrived at the car,  I realized I had left my old black sweatshirt up on  the hill where we sat.  I could clearly see it with the binoculars and  I held them against the lens of the DSLR to take a photograph, my low tech answer to a long lens. In Photoshop, I circled the sweatshirt for your convenience.  I imagine it is still there;  we simply could not climb that hill again.  If you are in the area, go there and find it please!

signal rock


Below is our rephotograph of Muybridge’s panorama.  In the lower right corner is my camera bag; you can just barely see the corner of tripod for the pinhole camera.  The steepness of the hill is not recorded by the camera in the Muybridge’s photograph or ours.  If I go back to retrieve the sweatshirt, I will record my lack of breath on the way up to that rock. The parking lot is the white dot in the right hand photograph.  It actually is not that far away, just a big drop in elevation.  If you zoom in, you can see the round stone corral, almost dead center.  Off to the South, the larger stone structure that enclosed the Army’s cemetery is partially hidden by the trees which have grown up on the hill.

thomsonpanorama copy

Here is the reproduction of Muybridge’s panorama.  If you look closely, you can see at least one person standing on the hill on the right side of the frame.  It is clearly the same hill on the right side of our photograph.  How alone those men in the Army must have felt!  The war actually only lasted a year but the conflict really started years before. The Army outnumbered the Modocs 10:1 but could not subdue them until the end when they brought in 300 troops with Howitzers.  The area was barren and hostile. It was a war no wanted to fight. In the labyrinth of the Lava Beds, the Modocs made their stand, waiting out the white man.  All they wanted was to stay on their land with the right to hunt and fish and gather food as their people  had done for centuries.  It was not to be.

muybrigespanorama tule lakePanorama of Lava Beds from Signal Station at Tule Lake, Camp South, from the series The Modoc War, 1873 (one frame each of five stereos) by Edweard Muybridge

I am indebted to Rebecca Solnit and her wonderful book.  I am indebted to the RTM for his insights, dedication and diligence concerning  this crazy pursuit.  I am honored to have stood where Muybridge once stood.  It was a great road trip overall, but more on that later.

Featured image:  Signal Station from below, 2016, Janet Neuhauser