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The old city of Panama through the eyes of Eadweard Muybridge

Posted on May 17, 2018 In Categories Blog Cultural Activities Las Clementinas Website Featured

Surely it also happens to you. You live in a city (this or any other) and you go through it every day.  You enjoy it, and sometimes you even suffer it. You recognize and make yours its most secret spaces, and you learn to enjoy the beauties that the city offers you, you become part of its monuments and landscapes, and even you have some that become your favorites. Thus, your environment becomes a familiar element. So much, that it seems that it always would have been the same. But how much do cities change? How much has your city changed?

In Panama, we had and still have the wonderful opportunity to prove it. For a few months, we were hosts of an extraordinary pioneer of photography. A true magician named Eadweard Muybridge whose photos of 19th-century Panama City are an intensely vivid inventory of the landscapes, buildings and people he saw and portrayed during his rich visit. Not only their Panamanian photos are beautiful, but they also allow us to perceive what our city was like at other times and to know the inevitable changes of the urban landscape. But they even express to us the signs of permanence in our city: those spaces that despite the passage of time, still keep signs of identity that make them recognizable, lasting, almost eternal.

But I should tell you briefly who Eadweard Muybridge was, and above all how he came to our city as a pioneer of world photography.

Autor: Eadweard Muybridge
Título: Iglesia de la Merced
Smithsonian American Art Museum

He was born under the name Edward James Muggeridge in 1830 but adopted the name Eadweard as Edward’s original Anglo-Saxon form, and the surname Muybridge believing it was equally archaic. He was an extraordinary English photographer both for the quality of his work and for his advances in the photographic studio of the movement. He was only 20 years old when he emigrated to the United States. And a few years later, while on a return trip, he suffered serious head injuries in an accident on a stagecoach in Texas. He spent the next few years recovering in England, where he took professional photographs and learned the wet collodion process. He returned to San Francisco in 1867, and a year later his photographs of the Yosemite Valley guaranteed him world fame. In 1872, Muybridge married Flora Shallcross Stone and two years later discovered her infidelity with the commander Harry Larkyns. Muybridge looked for him and when he found him he shot him point-blank. Larkyns died that night, and Muybridge was arrested without protest and placed in the Napa prison. But he was acquitted in a justified homicide trial. To this day, the court case and transcripts are essential for forensic historians and neurologists, due to the sworn testimony of multiple witnesses about Muybridge’s state of mind. In fact, the American composer Philip Glass composed an opera, The Photographer, with a script partially based on the transcripts of the Muybridge trial.

In February 1875, Eadweard Muybridge boarded a Pacific Mail Steamship Company ship in San Francisco bound for Panama and Central America, where he would photograph the locations served by the company’s cargo and passenger business. The idea was that Muybridge’s photos and his magnificent photographed landscapes would serve to encourage tourism and inspire investment. Does it sound familiar to you? The first stop on the Muybridge route was the city of Panama, and then it headed north along the Pacific coast, stopping in Costa Rica, Honduras and El Salvador until it reached San José in Guatemala.

Autor: Eadweard Muybridge
Título: Moonlight Effect. Bay of Panama
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

After spending several months photographing these cities, he immersed himself in the darkroom, printing his negatives and working his usual magic, adding dramatic cloudy landscapes to the sky and creating effects in the light of the moon for his views of the Bay of Panama. But let’s not kid ourselves. These were mere technical improvements to the photographs that already included intense tropical vegetation, Spanish colonial architecture, imposing volcanoes, and rich local populations.

Today, Muybridge is known for his pioneering work in animal locomotion photography, made just two years after his visit to Panama, in which he used several cameras to capture the movement in stop-motion photographs. Likewise, its power of anticipation is reflected in its invention called zoopraxiscope, a device for projecting moving images before the flexible strip of perforated film, used in cinematography.

Autor: Eadweard Muybridge
Título: Panama from the Parade Ground
Smithsonian American Art Museum

In 1894, Muybridge returned to England, and ten years later the Kingston Museum was opened in his hometown. There you can see a collection of equipment from Muybridge, including its original biunial sliding lantern and the zoopraxiscope projector. You can access a large part of his photographic collection in the online archives of Stanford University, a technological detail that Muybridge would undoubtedly have loved.