The first time I saw Volcan Quezaltenango—Guatemala, I laughed. It was a spontaneous reaction to a visual logic so flawed, so completely surreal and implausible, that I was unprepared for the mental smack in the head.
The photograph presumably showed a view looking down into the crater of the volcano, 1 but there were too many conflicting visual cues for this reading to make any literal sense. A cloud hovered mid-frame above a jumble of sharp boulders, its lace-white edges backlit by an intense light source. All at once I was looking down into the ground and up into the sky. The nearest boulder was five times the size of the distant cloud, which itself seemed as large as a building. As if that weren’t enough, the sun was implausibly sandwiched in a thin layer between the flat plane of boulders and the infinite depth of the sky. What was this supposed to be, anyway? A violent eruption in progress? Steam forced out of cracks in the earth? Rocks hurtling through the air?
I dismissed the picture as unnecessarily romantic, completely overdone, possibly sentimental, and just plain weird and nonsensical.
This rarely seen picture was made by Eadweard Muybridge during his exile in Central America, in 1875. At the time, he was known mainly as a photographer of the American West, especially of Yosemite and San Francisco. Weeks after his acquittal for the murder of his wife’s lover (he confessed to the crime, but it was ruled a justifiable homicide), he took a rowboat out onto the San Francisco Bay and boarded the steamship Honduras bound for Panama. The expedition had been arranged before the murder, but now the timing made it a convenient getaway.
It was also a chance for the photographer to reinvent himself. On the month-long journey to Panama Bay, he tossed his old name overboard and assumed a new one, Eduardo Santiago Muybridge — one of five formative times in his life that he adopted a new identity and emerged as a slightly more complicated version of his previous self. 2 Over the next year, Eduardo traveled with the Pacific Mail Steamship Company to Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico, documenting the public plazas and colonial architecture of the port cities and the operations of nascent coffee fincas in the highlands.
Only eleven known albums of this Central American work survive, and only one contains a complete set of 264 photographs in a numbered sequence. The other albums vary in image count and selection, but they are all leather-bound and gold-embossed, likely handcrafted by Muybridge himself. I first encountered Volcan Quetzaltenango in an album that had belonged to his benefactor, California governor Leland Stanford. 3
The more famous Muybridge, the pioneer in motion studies, emerged soon after the photographer’s return to California. In 1877, the governor commissioned Muybridge to settle the debate about whether a horse ever had all four hooves off the ground at the same time. He answered affirmatively with a single picture of Stanford’s horse Occident running at full gallop, an important technological achievement that was presumably worked out while he passed the time on the deck of the Honduras. 4 The following year, with the press as witnesses, Muybridge aligned an entire bank of cameras to produce a continuous sequence of photographs of another galloping horse, effectively an early form of cinematic animation. The images dramatically arrested time, giving substance and detail to something previously invisible. Over the next several years, Muybridge obsessively compiled a body of work that documented all manner of people, animals, and objects, as they moved, drifted, rolled, and twisted through space, culminating in the landmark publication Animal Locomotion, in 1887. 5
As pervasive and influential as Muybridge’s motion studies are, his Central American pictures are commensurably unknown. 6 When my colleague, Dr. Scott Brady, a cultural geographer, asked me what I knew about Muybridge’s work in Guatemala, I replied that I had never heard of it. Thus began our collaborative research project. In the course of three trips over the next five years, we traced Muybridge’s travels through Guatemala and Panama to create photographic and textual analyses of the sites, spaces, and cultures we encountered. We had thought that rephotographing scenes from Muybridge’s vantage point would allow us to observe changes in culture and landscape over time. Yet we discovered that his pictures, which had once seemed to be straightforward documents of post-colonial society, were actually highly romanticized constructions. Fakes, if you will. They challenged much of what I thought I knew about the practice of rephotography. 7
So back to Volcan Quezaltenango—Guatemala. Like nearly all the pictures in the album, it was a fabrication made from at least two different photographs. But whereas the other pictures were literal and descriptive, this one had a phantasmagoric quality. I dismissed the dark and brooding picture as unnecessarily romantic, completely overdone, possibly sentimental, and just plain weird and nonsensical.
Muybridge apparently had a collection of cloud pictures that he could shuffle through in order to find just the right fit of land and sky.
That Muybridge should use a combination printing technique to enhance his images was not surprising. Adding clouds to scenes was a common 19th-century practice, a response to the technical limitations of the medium. 8 Glass plate films of the era were particularly sensitive to blue light, which meant that skies and clouds often appeared white in a final print. So photographers made separate exposures of cloud-filled scenes that better registered the delicate details of atmosphere. Then the two negatives, sky and scene, could be stacked together to render a new view when printed. Muybridge was especially adept at this technique and used it extensively throughout his career. 9 Even the normally stable geography of distant ridgelines — useful for identifying the precise vantage point of the shot — was unreliable. Adding clouds to a scene often required cleaning up mottled horizons and skylines by painting directly on the original negative with a black masking ink. With the horizon thus improved, it was easier for the photographer to blend in the clouds with a gentle fading gradient.
What struck me about Volcan Quezaltenango was that I had already seen those clouds, scattered throughout the album, combined with different landscape views. Muybridge apparently had a collection of cloud pictures that he could shuffle through in order to find just the right fit of land and sky. I imagined his cloud collection as a wooden box filled with carefully filed glass plate negatives, arranged and indexed according to visual and aesthetic properties. 10 That thought prompted a whole string of questions. How did he decide on a pairing? Was he consistent from one print to the next? Where did the cloud scenes originate, and would it be possible to reconstruct them by piecing together parts of different images?
In archives and libraries across the continent, I found other albums of this work that contained remixes of land and sky. The same landscapes were paired with alternate clouds, depicting parallel realities. Now I had even more questions: Did his choice of clouds reflect his mood at the time? Or did he intend to elicit a particular reaction from the viewer? With modern brain imaging techniques, could I measure the emotional response of individuals looking at the same landscape paired with different clouds? The idea intrigued me enough that I went so far as to track down neuroscientists, only to learn that the technology is not yet advanced enough to pick up on subtle emotional differences that might be prompted by visual cues like varying cloud forms. 11
In the course of my career, I have often wondered whether it is possible to truly rephotograph a landscape, any more than it is possible to rephotograph the weather. It is an aggressive and sometimes mystifying act to compress the four dimensions of the living, breathing world into something flat and static. Even at a site where little has changed, or where the span of elapsed time is so brief as to be considered the same moment, the universe created within the borders of the frame bears only a tenuous relation to reality. Muybridge’s Central American work raised yet another, more fundamental question: Was it possible to rephotograph something that may never have existed?
On one trip, Scott and I spent the better part of a day driving and hiking along the sloped and terraced hills above Lake Atitlán in the Guatemalan Highlands. We struggled to make sense of the terrain and to reconcile the volcano peaks in Muybridge’s photographs with what we saw around us. We knew that he had added “artificial” volcanoes to at least one of his views. But clouds moved across the hazy blue lake, alternately revealing and hiding the outlines of slopes, crater profiles, and other visual cues. Stands of trees that had not been there in Muybridge’s time further obscured our view. The difference between what was fake and (what we knew as) real was dramatic, and yet the conditions made it impossible to prove.
The difference between what was fake and (what we knew as) real was dramatic, and yet the conditions made it impossible to prove.
When we finally found the correct vantage, the scene was completely blocked by trees. Oliver Hutton, a student who accompanied us, made some pictures from an alternate spot, but the cloudy sky hindered the comparison. Only the screen capture of a view from Google Earth, made five years after the initial fieldwork, rendered the scene in a way that shows the conspicuous absence of those superfluous volcanoes.
Again and again, we found that Muybridge’s photographs suggested a version of reality that contradicted the facts. He spent a considerable amount of his time documenting the coffee industry, in a series that showed workers clearing the land and planting trees, picking and processing coffee beans, and sending the final product off to distant ports. Most of these photographs were made at a finca called Las Nubes (The Clouds!), which still exists today.
What makes Las Nubes unusual, besides the fact that it remains a finca after more than a century of political, cultural, and economic turmoil, is that its owners are aware of Muybridge’s visual record. Scott and I were charmed to see that a handful of Muybridge photographs had been copied, enlarged, framed, and exhibited on the walls of the main residence. Roughly five times the size of the originals, the prints were presumably at one time a neutral shade of gray, but the equatorial sun and high humidity had bleached them into a pale green that matched the surrounding foliage.
On the first of three visits to the finca, I struggled to rephotograph Muybridge’s First day of the coffee season—Las Nubes, which shows a gathering of indentured Mayan women carefully arranged in front of his lens, among several dozen ladders with woven baskets on top. The women seem to be trying to hide between the ladders, and their expressions range from blankly indifferent to smoldering with anger. Perhaps they were put off by the foreign photographer who interrupted their work as he positioned himself high above them. Or maybe they were irritated by his compositional fastidiousness, which must have required a lengthy session of barking out orders, or waving people around with oversized gestures.
The site was now a small parking lot draped in bougainvillea. I was able to locate the camera’s position easily enough, but the anonymous figures glaring back from the past made me uneasy. Would my picture reinforce their powerlessness? In ways that I could not fully articulate, I felt that rephotographing the scene would obliterate their existence, or at least minimize their significance in the original. It was an unusual feeling that I’d not had before, nor since, but I honored it and packed up my gear without taking a picture.
The following afternoon, I was working on a nearby slope that looked down toward that same site and a large drying platform still in use. As I moved my tripod around to get in position, I could tell that I was being watched. An older man was sweeping debris off the patio, and as I laid down my equipment, he approached. He might have said something in Spanish, which I don’t remember and probably didn’t understand at the time, but he effectively communicated that the place I was standing was too dirty to set down my gear. He dashed off and returned with an empty, white, nylon fertilizer bag and carefully spread it out for me.
I showed him the historic picture in my hands and indicated, with my functionally poor Spanish, how I’d framed the contemporary view. This act was usually enough to clarify my intentions to anyone who took an interest. He nodded enthusiastically and lingered as I worked, as if wanting to engage in a real conversation. I awkwardly pieced together the words to learn that his name was José Orosco Velasquez, and I guessed that he was somewhere in his mid-to-late sixties. In retrospect, I had no basis for the supposition, but it occurred to me he might have grown up at Las Nubes. Knowing that there was still a small population of families living there, I asked, or tried to ask, if his father had worked on the farm. Mr. Velasquez answered that he had. Then I asked if his grandfather had worked there, and again he said yes. He bent over and picked up my stack of Muybridge pictures resting on the fertilizer bag, flipped through them, and identified his grandfather, without hesitation. In one print, a small, vaguely defined figure filled the frame of a darkened doorway. He pointed with emphasis: “Mi abuelo! Si, mi abuelo!” I circled the figure and labeled it “Abuelo José Orosco Velasquez.”
It was an astonishing discovery that made intuitive sense. The revelation sent chills down my spine.
It was an astonishing discovery that made intuitive sense. Muybridge’s pictures were displayed all over the finca and Mr. Velasquez presumably grew up looking at them. It wasn’t hard to imagine that the family story of Muybridge’s visit might have been passed down through the generations. The revelation sent chills down my spine. It helped me understand why I had struggled the day before, faced with a photograph that seemed to be less about a place, or the idea of a place, than about human lives and stories. Separated by language, culture, and history, those lives were so distant from me as to be almost entirely inaccessible. Accepting what was lost helped me get beyond the surface properties of the pictures (“that was then, this is now”), which was a great relief.
The only problem was that Mr. Velasquez’s story wasn’t true.
On a return visit, we couldn’t find anyone who could support his claims. In fact, none of the workers we talked to had family stories of the finca that went as far back as Muybridge’s time. When I met Mr. Velazquez again, I showed him different copies of the pictures, and he identified a new person, insisting this time that it was his father, not his grandfather. But the generational math didn’t work out. Perhaps his memory was fading? Or perhaps, as I often did, he had latched onto a detail in a picture that corresponded to something in the real world, and he’d modified his understanding to fit that mental construction.
On our final trip, we visited the main plaza in the historic center of Panama City. Between my full complement of gear and my compulsive need to have my lens occupy the same space as Muybridge’s, our presence was conspicuous. I was straddling a well-groomed flowerbed and Scott sat on a bench alternately reading and making notes, when some young news photographers approached and inquired about our work. Their newspaper, La Estrella, was the very same that had announced Muybridge’s arrival some 135 years earlier. They trailed us for part of the day, taking pictures, and later we met with a writer who interviewed us and drafted a story for publication. We couldn’t believe the symmetry. The newspaper that had promoted Muybridge’s Central American activities was about to publish an article about our follow-up to his work! A few days after our return to California, La Estrella published a story illustrated with a striking black-and-white portrait of Muybridge looking off to the side with his shock of gray hair and his long, distinctive, white beard.
Like so many of Muybridge’s photographs, the longer I stared at this picture, the stranger it became. His eyes, sometimes intense and glaring, were a little softer here, with an uncharacteristic glimmer. His lips were slightly parted as though he were about to speak, and he seemed a little more mild-tempered and approachable. The sharpness and contrast were also much better than in most pictures from the period. I was surprised that in all my research on Muybridge I’d never run across this revealing portrait. Naturally, it turned out to be a fake, a promotional image for a theatrical play produced in 2006 at the University of British Columbia. In a fitting substitution, the actor portraying Muybridge became a stand-in for the real photographer, illustrating our story about the pursuit of a visual past that never really existed. The staged picture became reality.
All of which brings me back to Volcan Quezaltenango—Guatemala, the picture that produced the unexpected laugh at the start of this project.
It’s tempting to find in Muybridge’s biography some reason or motivation for the way he represented the world within his photographs. Can the psychological fallout of murdering his wife’s lover be seen in his work? I imagine that he spent his year in Central America with a wounded spirit and a preoccupied mind. Did his reinvention as Eduardo Santiago make him a substantively different person? Did his violent temperament, attributed to a head injury sustained at a younger age, show up in the elaborate and brooding construction of Volcan Quezaltenango? Such speculations interest me less than the work itself, and what it says about the mechanisms of photographic representation.
The object, imitated and misunderstood in one moment, is now seen across a chasm of time, and likely misunderstood again.
Photography presumes to create a definitive and accurate record; this fact happened and this is how it looked. Of course, the critique of that false pose is well established. Plato pointed to the prickly problem of art and representation when he asked, “Does a couch, if you observe it from the side, or from the front, or from anywhere else, differ at all from itself?” 12 My take on this is that a photograph of a couch suggests that there is but one view of the couch, but the couch-ness of the thing may or may not be contained within that frame. A picture implies a fact that it isn’t required to prove.
Rephotography follows the same rules; this fact happened, then another, and this is how they look together. As a set, the two facts form a third, possibly more airtight, case for a clearly seen and understood set of circumstances. The object which is imitated and misunderstood in one moment is now seen across a chasm of time, and likely misunderstood again. Yet adding another layer of interpretation is more confounding than revealing. The relationship created by two or more pictures, linked by space and separated in time, can mean or imply virtually anything.
Just because photographs don’t function the way we might want them to doesn’t mean that we should dismiss them summarily. When I study Volcan Quetzaltenango now, I think of a different volcano, Volcan Agua. I remember the day I hiked to its crater, where I was challenged, and failed, to make a picture that truly matched my exhaustion and disorientation in that moment. My experience needed to be seen; it simply could not be captured within the confines of a two-dimensional representation. It needed more — more pictures, more time, more sound, more atmosphere, more otherworldliness.
We only see the reality in a picture that we already believe. Everything else is invisible.
So now I return to the question that framed this journey. Is it possible to rephotograph something that may never have existed? Yes, I think it is. If we believe that something exists, or that it once did, we can create representations that confirm its existence. Can a fabrication be truthful and accurate? Yes, I think so. And this is the paradox that Muybridge’s work illuminates so well: a single experience and the resulting artifacts can have multiple and contradictory meanings. By definition, we only see the reality in a picture that we already believe. Everything else is invisible.
I’m reminded of the wonderful fable of The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The narrator has mechanical trouble with his plane’s engine and is forced to land in the Sahara. While attempting repairs in the remote desert, he encounters the Little Prince, who has come from a tiny, distant asteroid. The Little Prince demands a sheep, or, more accurately, a drawing of a sheep, as his home is very small and he wants a companion. But he rejects every drawing of the sheep as either too old, too sickly, or too much like a ram. It’s not until the narrator draws a picture of a box that the Little Prince is satisfied. The box is perfect because it holds his ideal sheep and confirms a version of the world as he understands it. It is a sheep the way the Little Prince needs it to be seen.
Muybridge’s pictures of Central America demonstrate how photography often functions; the information within the borders of the frame communicates an apparent fact that, on further examination, is revealed to be merely a suggestion. The pictures are superficial travel documents, generic enough to be invested with almost any meaning that a viewer brings. Even when we know them to be smoke-and-mirror constructions — more like handmade illustrations than what our modern sensibilities say photography ought to be — they are close enough to our perception of the world that we are inclined to believe in them.
Muybridge himself was probably not bothered by this distinction; he used both “Photographic Studies” and “Illustrations” in his title: Photographic Studies of Central America and the Isthmus of Panama: The Pacific Coast of Central America and Mexico; The Isthmus of Panama; Guatemala; and the Cultivation and Shipment of Coffee, Illustrated by Muybridge. The equivalence of these words suggests an attitude toward the medium that we don’t always share today, which is, perhaps, our loss.
After years of chasing phantom skies and shifting ground, snapping bits of clouds together like puzzle pieces, and trying to divine stories and facts from apocryphal pictures, I have come to see Volcan Quetzaltenango as Muybridge’s most evocative photograph. It is overdone. It is wildly romantic. But it’s also personal, honest, furiously expressive, radical, and full of possibility. It contains many of the complexities and contradictions that have defined the medium as long as it has existed.
As a photograph, it’s nearly perfect.