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Sunday, 9 June 2013


Postcards of the Yosemite Valley

Everything is photogenic once it has been photographed.”
Lewis Baltz

There is a story that before he sailed to America in 1850, Eadweard Muybridge promised his family that he wouldn’t return to England until he was famous. That probably says more about his character than any of the later suggestions he suffered some nervous disorder or psychiatric condition. As it happened, he did return an unknown. Between 1860 and 1866, following a stagecoach accident that left him in a coma for several days, he was in England inventing a washing machine and – this is one of those details we tend to forget – a director of the Bank of Turkey. When he reappeared in San Francisco around June of 1866 he became a photographer and in the way these things happen, shot his wife’s lover, photographed a horse in a split second and invented the zoopraxiscope. For a while he was what he had wanted to be; one of the most famous men in the world, but here’s the thing. Had the court been one that believed a man who shot another in cold blood deserved punishment and sent Muybridge to jail, so ruining any chance of him photographing Occident the racehorse, we would still acknowledge him today as one of the great photographers of the 19th century, if only for his images of Yosemite Valley. Everyone who went there afterwards with a camera owed him some debt. As these postcards reveal, it was often explicit. For a long time there was only one way to photograph Yosemite.

Take for example this study of Mirror Lake; plate 70 in Era of Exploration by Weston Naef shows a view by Muybridge that must have been taken from almost exactly the same position. Of course if you were going to take a camera into the park there were only a few accessible and obvious vantage points to capture the reflection of the lake so it is entirely possible the photographer had never seen Muybridge’s original yet he or she didn’t stumble in here by accident either. In the eighty years between Muybridge’s photograph and the postmark (1940) on the back of this one, Yosemite had acquired status as the apotheosis of the American wilderness. Everyone from Albert Bierstadt to Ansel Adams had portrayed the place, and as two other images here might suggest, Mirror Lake had been done to death. But why seek out an original point of view? This was what people wanted to see. Anything else would have been a disappointment.

Muybridge doesn’t deserve all the credit. Carleton Watkins went before him and was the first American photographer who realized there was a market for epic landscape images. Charles Weed might have actually beaten Watkins to Yosemite. The dispute is meaningless, like arguing a preference for one photographer over the others. Together their real achievement was to reduce painting to a secondary medium for documenting the landscape. From here on it was to be done with a camera. What’s a Bierstadt or a Thomas Hill painting compared to this postcard? Somewhat artificial, especially as neither could resist adding personal touches such as a lone horseman or a Native American warrior staring off into space. There were places on earth, the photographers were saying, where nature is bigger than art.

Watkins also photographed Agassiz Rock from the same position as this photographer, or maybe that should be the other way around. In a way it represents a secondary achievement for the photographers. Agassiz was a promoter of catastrophism, the theory that the geology of the planet was formed through a series of sudden, violent events, and formations like this were the evidence. How else to explain the implausibility of a huge boulder perched on a tiny point? Today catastrophism can sound suspiciously like intelligent design, a half-baked compromise that gives creationism the respectability of conviction. At the time it was actually a scientifically credible alternative. One of the briefs for the 1871 Hayden Survey of Wyoming, for which William Henry Jackson was the photographer, was to search for evidence of catastrophism. The irony was that far from confirming the theory, formations like Agassiz Rock would give substance to the argument that the Earth was shaped gradually over millions of years.

Though the national park is more extensive, the actual valley only takes up about fifteen square kilometres and is dominated by a handful of features; El Capitan, Half Dome and Sentinel Dome, Cathedral Rocks, Mirror Lake and the Bridalveil Fall. Muybridge made the boast that he reached places no one else was game to in order to get his images. Given there were so few essential sights he probably figured that unless he climbed to apparently inaccessible places people would soon tire of Yosemite views. If so he was underestimating public taste. Not only are his best photographs the ones he took from obvious vantage points, the scenes that took his breath away in the first place, the public never grew tired of photographs. Anyone who went in with a camera and the intention to produce a few postcards would find customers. Partly, and you can see this in these images, so long as your exposure was good and your hand steady, you couldn’t go wrong. The picture took itself.    

One final detail to consider: all of the postcards here were toned with sepia, giving them the distinctive yellowish brown hue of 19th century photographs. Did the publishers consciously evoke the style of 19th century photography as a way of selling the prints to customers? If so, were the customers – and the photographers – after the effect that brought to mind a time when Yosemite was a genuine wilderness barely touched by Europeans? Alternatively they may have become so used to viewing images of the landscape in these hues that without that 19th century appearance the photographs lacked authenticity. 


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