Tycoons love to survey their empires. And in the 1870s, that empire was San Francisco. The city was in a period of ravenous growth fueled by mining discoveries like the 1848 Gold Rush and the Comstock Lode, and the first transcontinental rail line, a feat that made the men behind the Central Pacific Railroad—Mark Hopkins, Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, and Collis Potter Huntington—very, very rich. All four soon built ostentatious mansions near each other in an area of San Francisco known as California Street Hill (later Nob Hill), a neighborhood that offered soaring views of the city and the bay below. It was a vista that drew pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge for a new project: a 360-degree panorama of the American West’s great metropolis.
A print of Muybridge’s photographic panorama is currently on view at New-York Historical as part of the exhibition Panoramas: The Big Picture (through Dec. 6). Visitors can linger over all 17 feet, 4 inches of it, scanning the dense cityscape for details like hanging laundry, construction sites, and rickety wooden staircases over San Francisco’s famed hills. They can also study the spooky visual effect of early photography: the subtle clash of prints from plates that were exposed at different hours of the day, and the apparent absence of any people in the busiest city in California. (The grand scale and long exposure time effectively erased anything in motion.) It’s a stunning display that needs to be seen in person to fully appreciate. But how and why was it made in the first place? The answer is almost as fascinating as the work itself.
Muybridge is a curious figure in American history: An Englishman who was born Edward Muggeridge, he led a peripatetic life in the United States, and as a young man, almost died from a head injury suffered in a stagecoach accident in Texas. He survived and eventually became a highly skilled landscape photographer of Yosemite and other places. He was also a bit of character, with an erratic temperament that was likely the result of his brain injury. A 2001 article in Stanford Magazine wrote of Muybridge, “Often described as flamboyant or odd, he called himself a ‘photographic artist’ and went by at least five different names during a life packed with adventure, melodrama, and swings of fortune.” One of those swings was an 1875 murder trial in San Francisco after he shot and killed a man who was sleeping with Muybridge’s young wife. He was acquitted on the grounds of justifiable homicide, but that’s another day and another blog post.
He’s best remembered now for his motion-study photography and technological leaps in camera speed that laid the foundations for film and made him the father of motion pictures. It was an early project in this realm that found him a patron in Leland Stanford, aforementioned railroad magnate, governor of California, and founder of Stanford University. Stanford commissioned Muybridge to photograph his horse in order to prove a theory: that when a horse was trotting, there was a point at which all four hooves were simultaneously off the ground. Muybridge was able to take a previously impossible photo that proved Stanford was indeed correct.
In 1877, Muybridge ascended the hill on California Street to the unfinished mansion of Stanford’s fellow tycoon Mark Hopkins. There, in the house’s observation turret, Muybridge spent part of a day carefully aligning, moving, and realigning his mammoth camera and exposing glass plate megatives to create an unobstructed, 360-degree view of city. He repeated the process a year later to even greater effect with 13 separate vertical photographs. “Hopkins and Crocker both had panoramic observation towers built into their mansions, and Stanford had panoramic windows built into his,” says New-York Historical curator Wendy Ikemoto. “So, the panorama is in some ways the vision of a commercial king—a vision of monopoly, power, and control. And yet, Muybridge presents the opposite: The city is empty and desolate, and everything seems still. There are all these strange little interruptions to the sense of omnipotence that you would normally associate with a panorama.” While copies of the 1877 panorama were sold to the public, only nine prints of the 1878 panorama were made, one of which now resides in New-York Historical’s collection.
As Rebecca Solnit notes in her book about Muybridge, River of Shadows, San Francisco’s geography had drawn its fair share of panorama photographers over the years. But Muybridge’s efforts represented the height of the form and a metaphorical mic drop on his career as a landscape photographer. “Picture Muybridge atop the unfinished turret with its lacy iron railings, the precarious highest point in the central city; picture him standing there with his addled brain, his furtive heart, his boundless ambition, his tangled beard, his incomparable eye, looking out over his own history and looking into the question of what a panorama could be,” she writes.
Afterwards, Muybridge became fully immersed in his motion studies, eventually working at the University of Pennsylvania where he published thousands of groundbreaking images of animals and people on the move (including himself, nude.) In 1897, Daniel Parish Jr., a member of the executive committee at New-York Historical, purchased our print of the San Francisco panorama from Muybridge himself. Pleased by the sale, Muybridge wrote to New-York Historical librarian William Kelby with suggestions on how to preserve and mount it. “I am very glad to have it there,” he wrote. “I hope, in the far distant future it will be valued, more possibly than it is at the present, as a memento of what San Francisco looked like at the end of this present century.”
From the view of our far distant future, the panorama is indeed a memento. It’s also an elegy, a fact that makes the absence of visible people even more poignant in hindsight. In 1906, less than 40 years after it was made, San Francisco suffered a devastating earthquake and fire that killed at least 3,000 residents and destroyed an estimated 80 percent of the city. The Ozymandias mansions of the railroad barons didn’t survive. But lucky for us, their view did.
Come see the San Francisco panorama and much more at the New-York Historical exhibition Panoramas: The Big Picture, on view until Dec. 6.
Written by Kerrie Mitchell, Content Editor