A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
May 14, 2009 Volume 39 / Number 6

Byron Wolfe working above the crater of Volcan de Agua in Guatemala. Photo by Scott Brady.
Photo: From left, Matthew Bently and Dane Cameron

Byron Wolfe Receives Guggenheim Fellowship and Lantis Professorship

Byron Wolfe, Communication Design, has received a 2009 Guggenheim Fellowship for his project to re-photograph historical images made in Central America. Wolfe is one of 180 artists from the United States and Canada to be chosen as fellows from more than 3,000 applicants. He is the only professor from a CSU campus to receive the honor this year.

Guggenheim Fellows are recognized for their “stellar achieve- ment and exceptional promise for continued accomplishment.” This year’s winners each receive about $40,000 to pursue their work. Past winners have included Ansel Adams, W.H. Auden, Vladimir Nabokov, and CSU, Chico’s own Janet Turner, who received the award prior to her work at the University.

Wolfe’s work is also supported this year by the 2009 David W. and Helen E.F. Lantis University Professorship.

Wolfe collaborates with Scott Brady, Geography and Planning, in following the photographic footsteps of Eadweard Muybridge, who traveled through Guatemala and Panama in 1875–1876. Wolfe and Brady have visited Guatemala four times over the past four years, copies of Muybridge photos in hand, to find and photograph the scenes. They have so far located and re-photographed 75 of the about 200 original Muybridge historical images.

Wolfe said that many of the pictures are easy to find—landmarks like city plazas and cathedrals that still exist. Other places can be located by landscape features like volcanoes or hillsides, although he said the landscape itself changes a surprising amount over time.

“It is amazing how accurate you can be just moving around and changing the relationship of forms in the picture to find the right spot,” he said. Many times, Wolfe will travel with his laptop and digital copies of Muybridge’s pictures. He can overlay his own digital pictures on the historical images in Photoshop to check his accuracy.

Left: Eadweard Muybridge, 1875–1876. Ancient Sacrificial Stone. Right: Byron Wolfe, 2009. Monument #1, Hacienda Naranja, recently relocated for a new housing development.
Photo: From left, Matthew Bently and Dane Cameron

As for the less straightforward images, Wolfe said, “Little details connect all these pictures in ways that are completely unexpected—like we’d see a tree in one photograph, and then find the same tree in another photograph, but in reverse. Then there are some pictures I looked at for three years and thought, ‘There is no way we’ll ever find this.’ And then suddenly there is some little clue in another photo we discover, it will be, ‘Oh, I know exactly where that is.’”

Just as interesting, he added, is the process of retracing Muybridge’s steps to learn how he worked. “Over time, I’ve been able to piece together all of the pictures he made of a particular place and literally connect them,” Wolfe said. It is interesting visually, but it is also interesting to see what he emphasized and how he moved through space and decided to describe something.”

In the coming year, Wolfe will use his Guggenheim and Lantis funds to travel to the 11 archives and collections known to contain Muybridge’s Central America pictures. They are scattered across the country, from the Stanford University library to the State University of New York at Stony Brook. “It has been very difficult to do this work because I haven’t been able to find every picture that’s been made,” said Wolfe. “We’ve visited a place with three to four pictures in hand and re-photographed them and figured out how they fit together, then come back only to find another album that contains more photos. I’ll be going to all of these collections to get a more complete record of Muybridge photos. Then we will return to Central America to take our final pictures.”

After the re-photographing process is complete at a particular site, Wolfe combines his images with Muybridge’s, sometimes creating panoramas with the historic images set into them, sometimes setting the newer photos into the originals, sometimes displaying them side-by-side. While he is particularly interested in what this project reveals about the process of making pictures, Brady, a cultural geographer, is fascinated by “how what is in the pictures is a manifestation of how people live and work,” said Wolfe.

Together, the two are revealing a story of geographical and cultural change, as well as a story of how a photographer chooses to represent place. They are planning a book as well as a series of exhibitions.

Wolfe has an exhibition of a collaboration with photographer Mark Klett, running through July 12 at the Phoenix Art Museum. The show, “Charting the Canyon,” will travel to the Autry National Center of the American West in Los Angeles in the fall. More information can be found on his Web site, www.byronwolfe.com.


Anna Harris, Public Affairs and Publications