- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 27, 2003


By Rebecca Solnit

Viking. $25.95, 305 pages, illus.


Eadweard Muybridge was the 19th-century photographer who first took pictures of horses in motion, freezing their movements in a series of frames. The photographs were a revelation it was 1878 and their fame spread throughout the world. They showed that horses always had one hoof on the ground, even at full gallop, a fact that surprised many, who assumed the speeding animals, at least part of the time, had all four legs raised above the earth.

Muybridge also took pictures of running deer, birds in flight, and, famously, shots of himself, naked, walking with determination and on another occasion throwing a discus, his right side to the cameras that were taking his pictures. But it was his photograph of the horse that was his great breakthrough.

In “River of Shadows,” culture historian Rebecca Solnit shows how Muybridge’s extraordinary achievement freezing motion in a succession of frames led ineluctably a few decades later to motion pictures and was no small contribution to what makes the modern world so different from what came before.

But she also does much more. By placing her man vividly in his time, the second half of the 19th century, Ms. Solnit shows how Muybridge’s accomplishments were one significant development among many that were erasing (a favorite word of Ms. Solnit’s) the past and bringing about a new way of looking at things.

“Photography had always shown approximately what the human eye could see; its use lay in its ability to hold onto that sight,” writes Ms. Solnit. “With Muybridge’s breakthrough, it became something that could see more than the eye and thereby extend vision into a new realm.”

The future photographer wasn’t always Eadweard Mulbridge. Born Edward James Muggeridge in a tiny English town not far from London in 1830, he changed his surname to Muygridge in the 1850s and not happy with that, to Muybridge during the next decade. His first name he altered to Eadweard in 1882, after a return trip to his hometown that evidently prompted, writes Ms. Solnit, “a renewed sense of Englishness.”

He came to America as a young man, traveled around the United States, and by the mid-1850s was running a small bookstore in San Francisco. But Muybridge took up photography, then in its infancy and was soon doing little else than taking pictures.

Muybridge photographed Yosemite, but not like most photographers did, by shooting the breathtaking scenery from a distance. He went directly into the most inaccessible spots, on occasion his porters refusing to carry the heavy camera equipment of the time where Muybridge wanted to go.

He went anyway. Ms. Solnit describes the results: Muybridge chased “vertigo and disorientation,” she writes, and his photographs of Yosemite are “wild even in their sense of gravity and composition, as well as in the steep and remote places they represent.” His pictures are today regarded as some of the best and most striking ever taken of the park.

Muybridge also shot other California scenes, the sun setting over Mount Tamalpais on the north side of the Golden Gate, for example, and crowds celebrating the Fourth of July on San Francisco’s Market Street. He photographed the little-known Miwok-Paiute people, who had lived in the Yosemite area for centuries, and “made their lives visible” to most Americans for the first time, writes Ms. Solnit.

His pictures of the Modoc War, an Indian uprising in northern California in the early 1870s, are unforgettable images of an era rapidly disappearing. Even more striking are the several panoramas 360-degree views of a scene he took of San Francisco in the 1860s and 1870s from Rincon Hill first and then from Nob Hill.

But it was his motion photographs that made Muybridge world famous. It was Leland Stanford, the wealthy railroad magnate, California governor and U.S. senator, who hired him to do the studies. Stanford, a racehorse enthusiast, wanted pictures taken of his prize race horses, perhaps to improve their behavior. Muybridge photographed one of the greatest from the Stanford stable, Occident.

He also developed the technology necessary to shoot the horses in rapid motion. Ms. Solnit writes that “There were three great breakthroughs in Mulbridge’s motion studies.” The first “was the achievement of a photographic process fast enough to capture bodies in motion.” The second “was the creation of successive images” the photographic stills “that mounted together, reconstituted a whole cycle of motion rather than isolating a single moment.”

The third breakthrough, which brought him close to motion pictures was the “reanimation as a moving picture” of those successive images by means of a machine Muybridge developed and called his “zoopraxiscope.” He later changed its name to zoogyroscope. It put the pictures together and showed the horses and other animals, including man, that he photographed, in motion, walking and running.

Muybridge’s motion studies were widely admired. In France; they fascinated the painter Edgar Degas, who then made similar studies himself. The American artist Thomas Eakins was equally approving as was the physiologist Etienne-Jules Marey, who later had long talks with Muybridge in his study in Paris.

But for one artist, the photographs of Occident in motion were bad news, at least at first. The French academic painter Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier had painted horses for decades. Muybridge’s photographs showed him that much that he thought he knew about horses from close observation while they were running had been wrong and he had to rethink his approach, despairing that the many images he’d made of the animals were wrong.

Ms. Solnit is good on Muybridge’s life, especially on the nationwide scandal he created when he shot his wife’s lover point blank in the heart, and then was acquitted by a jury of all wrongdoing. After the trial, the cuckolded husband and acquitted murderer went on a tour of Central America, shooting pictures.

Ms. Solnit’s interesting, too, on bringing to life Muybridge’s range of famous friends, including the naturalist John Muir, the great painter of Western landscapes, Albert Bierstadt, and the inimitable Helen Hunt Jackson, a writer and free spirit.

The author is first rate when she describes the significance of Muybridge’s discoveries for America’s and the world’s intellectual and cultural history. Railroads had begun a great transformation by annihilating distance and time, she notes. The necessity for accurate timetables scheduling train travel caused the nation to think about time as it hadn’t before. It was in 1869, for example, that a Saratoga Springs schoolteacher, Charles Ferdinand Dowd, thought time zones up and laid out a uniform standard time in the four zones within the continental United States, each an hour earlier as a traveler progressed west.

Before that, time varied from town to town throughout America, with one city at 1:10 while another a couple of miles away might have its clocks set 20 minutes earlier. Dowd’s invention settled that problem. Muybridge’s motion studies raised questions about time, too, by revealing new things, and a new world. In Ms. Solnit’s well-chosen words: With Muybridge, photography “was now going to cross a great divide, to bring into visibility, as the telescope and microscope had before it, a world hidden to the eye.”

But at times Ms. Solnit goes too far. The widespread social unrest and economic distress of 1877 she describes “as bringing the country close to a civil war.” In St. Louis, she claims, “something akin to a Paris Commune arose after the railroads and virtually every other industry were shut down, and workers organized to run the city.” Civil war and Paris commune, with the widespread violence and enormous loss of life they imply, are simply too strong a way to describe what happened in America, as disturbing as it was at the time.

Similarly, the writer falls prey to already tired cliches of the cultural left, describing masculinity as a “fiction.” Masculinity may be manufactured out of testosterone, personal goals, and society’s demands, but it is nonetheless real in ways the word fiction does not satisfy.

And it’s tiresome that Ms. Solnit says she can’t admire Muybridge without reservation because he worked for a “robber baron” like Leland Stanford. Stanford promised to provide financial support and a place to do the motion studies. Why not take him up on it? And is Stanford University, built on Stanford’s estate from Stanford’s money, compromised by its benefactor, like the author says Muybridge was?

Still, when Ms. Solnit is at her best, she’s really pretty good. Readers will want more when she writes about Sarah Winchester, widow of the man who manufactured the repeating rifle, for example, who “was an ardent spiritualist who spent the last decades of her life, from 1884 to 1922, building a house to ward off the spirits of the Indians killed by her husband’s rifles.”

And it’s interesting to learn that Stanford’s stables at their peak held 800 horses, that his staff of 150 servants were forbidden to speak harshly to the animals, and that one worker had been fired for striking one.

Ms. Solnit provides an at times potent look at a very dynamic time in American history, and at an extraordinary individual. Her research is exemplary. If she goes at times too far, that’s okay, because what a story it is she tells.

Stephen Goode is senior writer at Insight magazine.

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