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Friday, April 27, 2012

Fire Department Museum Finds Three Muybridge Photos -- in Its Own Archive

Posted By on Fri, Apr 27, 2012 at 8:30 AM

  • Eadweard Muybridge

Cultural institutions in San Francisco continually search for new acquisitions. Alexis Coe brings you the most important, often wondrous, sometimes bizarre, and occasionally downright vexing finds each week.

Curator Jamie O'Keefe was conducting a standard inventory check at the San Francisco Fire Department Museum when she noticed tiny lettering in the corner of a photograph: Muybridge Studio.

O'Keefe was floored. Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) was best known for his pioneering work in motion photography. (Read a review of his 2011 exhibit at SFMOMA, "Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change.") The photographer was known for using 12 to 24 cameras at a time and his own shutter in an attempt to create images of suspended motion, resulting in a visual illusion of movement. He has been the focus of major exhibitions worldwide, most notably at the Tate Britain, the Smithsonian, and the Bay Area's own Cantor Center at Stanford University.

What's left of his portfolio is sought after by serious collectors and pre-eminent institutions across the globe -- and the images don't come cheap. Artnet estimates that Muybridge's famous Animal Locomotion plates sold, at auction in 2009, for a $45,000.

Under normal circumstances, purchasing a Muybridge -- let alone the three O'Keefe discovered -- would be out of the question for the SFFD Museum. It has no budget for acquisitions or a paid staff; O'Keefe herself is a volunteer, and she has been since she was working on her graduate degree in Museum Studies at the SF State in 2008. During the day, she is a full-time registrar for Connect Art International. The photograph, then, serves as an example of yet another way -- in addition to donation, trade, or purchase -- that cultural institutions collect: the found acquisition, the luckiest kind of them all.

  • Eadweard Muybridge

While Muybridge was born in Kingston upon Thames, where he also died, he emigrated to the United States in 1855, settling in San Francisco at age 25. It was the British photographer's panoramic photos of Yosemite in the late 1860s that brought him initial fame. He was the favored photographer of railroad baron Leland Stanford.

In other words, his studio in San Francisco is no secret, but his ties to the S.F. Fire Department were, until now.

"Many people are familiar with his motion studies and his cityscapes of San Francisco," O'Keefe acknowledges, "but I had no idea he took photos for the SFFD."

This association will be significant to Muybridge scholars, and the dates speak to an important moment in the department's history.

  • Eadweard Muybridge

The San Francisco Volunteer Fire Department was organized in 1849 but was not formalized or paid until 1866. Despite Muybridge's fame at the time, it is unlikely the department sought him out for that reason. O'Keefe believes "these photos commemorate the station and its equipment as a source of pride," but she notes there are similar sets produced by other local photography studios in the collection.

While O'Keefe has yet to find any scholarship or archival materials on Muybridge's relationship to the department, she's headed back into storage, looking for another found acquisition.

The San Francisco Fire Department Museum is open Thursday-Sunday at 655 Presidio (at Lyon), S.F. Admission is free.

For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.

Follow Alexis Coe on twitter @alexis_coe.

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Alexis Coe


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