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The man who stopped time

River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West Rebecca Solnit, Viking: 306 pp., $25.95

June 15, 2003|Michael Frank | Michael Frank is a contributing writer to Book Review.

Rebecca Solnit's "River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West" is a perfect example of a subject waiting -- in this case for almost a century and a half -- for the appropriate writer to come along to unlock its concealed meaning and unexpected relevance. The subject is Eadweard Muybridge the photographer and Eadweard Muybridge the phenomenon, and together they have brought out in Solnit a book that is so spirited and free-ranging, so Western in its unfettered questing curiosity, that its genre is not easy to define. This portrait of a man, a place, a time, a technology, an art and various other matters that elude encapsulation shines on nearly every page with rigor and gusto and is consistently a delight to read.

"Delight" is probably a word that was never applied to Muybridge, an obstinate, gloomy, solitary figure who, by photographing a horse in motion in California in 1872, "helped launch," Solnit contends, "the world we live in." Instead the delight belongs to the writer and has a good deal to do with her methodology, which might be summarized as a persistent search for the surprise connection or reverberation between past and present, photograph and reality, a man and his time.

Although Solnit considers Muybridge biographically, she has not written a pure biography. She analyzes his photographs but has not delivered only a critical study. There is a good deal of history in "River of Shadows," but it is built up out of excursions into the past that branch and fork, as needed, into the history of art and photography, landscape and nature, business and industry, cowboys and Indians; there are pieces of the history of the railroad, the telegraph, the Gold Rush, the mid-19th century boom years in San Francisco and what she calls the "headstrong, rootless sense of the heroic possibilities and glamour still summed up by the word California."

Ah, California: Using Muybridge as her conduit, Solnit builds a case for the state having produced an alternative modernism, a kind of balancing pendant to the artistic and literary modernism that emerged in Paris in the 19th century. California's modern experience, she argues, is an "amalgamation of technology, entertainment, and what gets called lifestyle." She even goes so far as to nominate the moment when the railroad baron Leland Stanford engaged the photographer Eadweard Muybridge to see if he could make an image of a horse in motion as a creation story behind California's two significant transformations of the world, Hollywood and Silicon Valley.

Why these men, why this place, why this particular experiment? The men seem, above all, to be an accident of timing, two figures falling into each other's lives because of the parallel evolution of two technologies. One of the four masterminds of the transcontinental railroad, Stanford helped transform space, as Muybridge, with his photographs, helped to transform time. Along the way Stanford made an enormous (also illegal, also perhaps immoral) quantity of money, which allowed him to become a patron of ideas. A collector of racehorses -- an all-too-fitting pursuit for a man who sped up transcontinental travel -- Stanford sought to answer a pressing question of his era: whether a trotting horse lifted its four hoofs off the ground at once.

In providing the answer (it was yes), Muybridge was not merely devising an experiment to satisfy a patron; he was conducting his own inquiry into motion -- "the motion of shutters and the speed of film" -- and was thereby furthering an intellectual and creative quest that began the first time he picked up a camera in the mid-1860s. In the kernel of this experiment in applied science, Solnit sees the origins of the university Stanford would eventually found in his son's memory. Muybridge, for his part, told Charles Knowles, a carpenter who as a young man assisted him with the early motion studies, that he knew they were going to be "successful in everything that moves. It is going to make a thorough revolutionizing in photography."

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