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Eadweard Muybridge Central America Album: Antiqua, Indians at Santa MariaIn February 1875, Eadweard Muybridge boarded a Pacific Mail Steamship Company vessel in San Francisco bound for Central America, where he would photograph the localities served by the company’s freight and passenger business. Muybridge was no stranger to such assignments, and the expectation was that the photographs, “judiciously distributed” and exhibited at international expositions, would encourage tourism and inspire the investment of those who perceived opportunity in the magnificent landscapes presented.[1]

 

Muybridge traveled in Central America for about nine months. He stopped first in Panama and then steamed north along the Pacific coast, stopping in Costa Rica, Honduras, and El Salvador, until he arrived at San José in Guatemala. He spent about six months photographing the principal towns - San José, Guatemala City, Antigua, Lake Atitlán, and Quezaltenango – although a great portion of his time was also spent visiting the coffee plantations, or fincas, in the interior highlands. At Las Nubes and San Isidro, fincas owned by William Nelson, the Pacific Mail agent in Guatemala, he documented plantation life and made a complete photographic record of the planting and cultivation of coffee trees, the harvesting and processing of the berries, and the loading and transporting of the crop to the coast, where it was exported by ship. His assignment completed, Muybridge boarded the Hondurasfor the return trip, and by early November he was back in San Francisco.

 

In the darkroom, printing his negatives, Muybridge worked his customary magic, adding dramatic cloudscapes to the skies and creating moonlit effects for his views of the Bay of Panama and the port of Champerico.[2] These were mere enhancements to photographs already featuring towering volcanoes, tropical vegetation, Spanish-colonial architecture, and indigenous populations. Muybridge made a number of albums for presentation to the appropriate people. Those that survive in California institutions carry the title The Pacific Coast of Central America and Mexico; The Isthmus of Panama; Guatemala; and the Cultivation and Shipment of Coffee. Illustrated by Muybridge. San Francisco, 1876.[3] Presentation copies were given to the Pacific Mail Steamship Company and Mrs. Leland Stanford, the wife of his patron, among several others. Most of these albums contain about 140 photographs each.

 

The Boston Athenæum’s two bound volumes contain a total of 202 photographs and are the most complete record of Muybridge’s Central American journey. The prints are approximately 5 ½ x 9 ½ in. and are mounted on pages that have been pre-printed with a lithographic tint block (serving as a frame for the photograph) and the imprint “Muybridge, San Francisco.” Some prints are signed Muybridge on the negative, and negative numbers are inscribed in pen in the tint block, lower left. Titles are inscribed in pencil at the bottom of the page. S. V. Storm, whose name is stamped in gold on the covers of the Athenaeum albums, remains unidentified, but Caroline Salvin, an Englishwoman traveling with her husband in Guatemala in 1873 and 1874, records several meetings with a Captain Storm and his wife, who had “traveled much in Mexico.”[4] S. V. Storm would not have been in possession of the albums for long, because they were purchased by the Athenæum in January 1878 from Daniel Lombard, another unknown figure.

 

Because Guatemala has not been well-documented photographically, particularly at such an early date, the photographs have great value. Central Americahas been studied as a historical record of the country under the regime of President Justo Rufino Barrios (1835-1885) and his “progressive” allies, who encouraged the coffee monoculture grown for export, a policy detrimental to the indigenous peoples and their traditional way of life.[5] In addition to general historical research, scholars have also consulted the Athenæum’s albums for specialized interests such as architecture, earthquakes, costume and textiles, as well as coffee production.

 

Sally Pierce
Curator Emerita of Prints and Photographs

 


[1] Rebecca Solnit, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technical Wild West (New York: Viking, 2003), 98.

[2] For Muybridge’s use of clouds, see Solnit, 47-50.

[3] E. Bradford Burns, Eadweard Muybridge in Guatemala, 1875: The Photographer as Social Recorder (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), viii.

[4] Caroline Salvin, A Pocket Eden: Guatemalan Journals, 1873-1874, Fiona Mackenzie King, ed., with Sybil Salvin Rampen and Wayne M. Clegern (South Woodstock, Vermont: Plumsock Mesoamerican Studies, 2000), 137.

[5] For a discussion of this topic, see Burns, passim.

 

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