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Book of the Week: Phantom Skies, Shifting Ground


Book Of The Week Phantom Skies, Shifting Ground Photographs by Byron Wolfe Reviewed by Blake Andrews After being acquitted for the murder of his wife’s lover, Eadweard Muybridge spent a year photographing along the Central American Pacific Coast. In 2007, photographer Byron Wolfe tracked down, cataloged, and eventually rephotographed every known Muybridge Central American photograph. Through photographic collage, interpretive rephotography, illustrations and essays, this book examines a rare series by Muybridge.

Phantom Skies and Shifting Ground By Byron Wolfe 
Radius Books/Temple University, 2017.
Phantom Skies, Shifting Ground
Selected as Book of the Week by Blake Andrews.

Phantom Skies, Shifting Ground. Photographs by Byron Wolfe. 
Radius Books/Temple University, Santa Fe, NM, USA, 2017. 228 pp., 130 color and black-and-white illustrations, 9¼x12".


"Bryon Wolfe is no stranger to rephotography. In the 1990s, he cut his teeth as a major contributor to Mark Klett's Third Views, Second Sights project. Klett pioneered the field in the 1970s with Third View's predecessor, Second View, a re-examination of historic western landscapes.

Klett's methodology was straightforward. He and his team would locate original photo sites, rephotograph them from the same camera position, then present the new images with the originals as side-by-side diptychs.

Phantom Skies and Shifting Ground By Byron Wolfe Radius Books/Temple University, 2017.

As time went by, Klett expanded the possibilities, shifting the presentation as he collaborated with Wolfe. They added color images and used modern digital tools to combine historical and contemporary versions into collages and panoramas. This created a more interactive and vibrant relationship between the two timeframes.

Phantom Skies and Shifting Ground By Byron Wolfe Radius Books/Temple University, 2017.

These techniques all appear in Wolfe’s own rephotographic project, Phantom Skies and Shifting Ground, a collaboration with Scott Brady recently published by Radius Books and Temple University Press. Eadweard Muybridge captured the original photographs, but they are not the California landscapes or animal locomotion series which built his reputation. Instead, Wolfe was drawn to an obscure set of photos that Muybridge took in Central America in 1875. Muybridge had just been acquitted of murdering his wife and needed a reset. He shed his identity, adopted an alias (Eduardo Santiago Muybridge), and headed south.

Phantom Skies and Shifting Ground By Byron Wolfe Radius Books/Temple University, 2017.

On his trip, Muybridge shot over 250 photos, but the album he produced never attracted much attention. Only a limited number of copies were published, each one unique. Eleven are believed to survive today. The negatives are now lost and none of the photos are very well known.

Phantom Skies and Shifting Ground By Byron Wolfe Radius Books/Temple University, 2017.

For Wolfe these circumstances were like honey to a bee. After stumbling on a well preserved Muybridge volume, Wolfe became intrigued, then gradually obsessed. He catalogued every known photo from the trip, then sought them out in person. In 2005, he visited Central America to search for the original photo sites. More trips followed, with his colleague Scott Brady joining the hunt.

Phantom Skies and Shifting Ground By Byron Wolfe Radius Books/Temple University, 2017.

Wolfe quickly realized that most of Muybridge's original photographs were photo-montages composed of multiple negatives. 'What first appeared to be straightforward photographic representations of a thriving post-colonial society,' Wolfe writes, 'eventually emerged as highly romanticized constructions.' The bulk of the constructions consisted of clouds inserted into open skies —Phantom Skies— a common enough practice in the 19th century.

Phantom Skies and Shifting Ground By Byron Wolfe Radius Books/Temple University, 2017.

Muybridge, however, also took liberties with landforms. He sometimes added extra mountains, ridges, water bodies, and impossible permutations. Wolfe found a photo early in the book particularly confounding. It shows a rock form with clouds inserted improbably in the center, 'so completely surreal and implausible that I was unprepared for the mental smack in the head.'

Phantom Skies and Shifting Ground By Byron Wolfe Radius Books/Temple University, 2017.

A rephotographer's task is tough enough when encompassing static changes over time. When the initial scenes aren’t attached to reality in the first place, the challenge grows. Wolfe initially struggled to come to grips with the situation. 'Is it possible to rephotograph something that may never have existed?' he asks in the introduction, before settling on the only answer that would allow him to move forward: 'Yes, I think it is.'

It would still be interesting if Wolfe stopped here, but the book he produced goes beyond rephotography. Some photos are presented on their own. For others, Wolfe combines historical and contemporary vistas into multiple-image collages, a technique he first used in the Third Views series.

Phantom Skies and Shifting Ground By Byron Wolfe Radius Books/Temple University, 2017.

Taken as a whole, Phantom Skies, Shifting Ground is a gorgeous production. However, there's a bonus! Attached to the inside cover is a facsimile version of the book Muybridge originally published in 1876. Holy cow! It's the next best thing to visiting Stanford's library, a delicious treat that honestly deserves its own publication. I get the sense the publishers have pulled out all the stops, creating a must-have book for anyone interested in Muybridge, rephotography, or general photo history." –BLAKE ANDREWS

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Blake Andrews is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at blakeandrews.blogspot.com. (Ed. note: Blake Andrews also writes reviews for photo-eye Blog. Read them here.)




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