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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.

In their way, Muybridge's panoramas prefigured cinema, as the famous motion studies did more specifically. Conducted first in the early 1870s with Stanford as his patron, afterward in Philadelphia during the late 1870s, the motion studies, Solnit argues, allowed Muybridge to make three great photographic breakthroughs: By developing a fast shutter, he devised a photographic process fast enough to capture not just horses but other animals and also men, women and children in motion. Using multiple cameras he created successive images that, mounted together, "reconstituted a whole cycle of motion rather than isolating a single moment." And finally, near the end of his career, he reanimated the photographs as a moving picture, using his zoopraxiscope, a sort of advanced cross between a magic lantern and a zootrope (which was a drum, pierced with slots and fitted with images, that, when spun, gave the illusion of movement). All this carried photography closer to motion pictures, "the first new artistic medium in millennia."

Although Solnit keeps her eye on the larger arc of Muybridge's accomplishments, she also manages to look down a number of alleys of the past and to find, tucked away in them, some wondrous moments and connections. To show that Muybridge was born into an "almost medievally slow world," she tells the story of how, when his grandfather did business, he would take a carrier pigeon with him to London. Once he had bought his cargo of wheat or coal, he would affix a note to the pigeon telling an associate how many barges he needed to transport the cargo, and release the bird; the barges would set out before his return and therefore save time. In the photographer's childhood, then, "nature itself was the limit of speed."

After the Civil War, she reports in a strange, haunting link, negatives made in the battlefield on glass plates were recycled into greenhouse windows, their "images of the harvest of death gradually fading away to let more and more light in on the orchids or cucumbers beneath." The indulgence of the Gilded Age comes through in all its vulgarity and excess when she describes a banquet in Sacramento at which Jane Stanford was presented with a huge silver platter: Under its lid, her new baby, the Stanford heir, was lying on a bed of blossoms, waiting to be displayed to guests.

Solnit describes a curious discovery, in a Bay Area junk shop in the 1950s, of a photo album called the Brandenberg album after the man who bought it. Pasted into its 138 pages were photographs of the 1870s divided between portraits of entertainers and views by Muybridge; she supposes that it was assembled by Flora Muybridge, who made her husband's photographs "scenic background to her urban demimonde." It seems almost as though this album, which was itself a new way of ordering experience in the period, contained in it the seeds of Flora's unfortunate fate (her lover came from that demimonde, and presumably she was free to spend time with him because her husband was away making pictures).

Then there are the various reverberations of Muybridge's motion studies. Degas drew them. Thomas Eakins included them in his classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. The academic painter Louis-Ernest Meissonier, whose fidelity to the way horses ran led him to follow alongside them on his estate while he was pushed on a sofa on wheels, was so thrown by the photographs that he declared, "Never again shall I touch a brush!" Later on, when Meissonier reversed himself and painted a portrait of Leland Stanford, he included a volume of the published motion studies open on a nearby table, lying "like a virus in the body, a virus that would change the nature of the visible."

"River of Shadows," which is full of such jewels, closes with two so fitting that Solnit might as well have invented them. They are the location of Flora Murybridge's grave -- it lies behind a United Artists Multiplex Cinema in Colma, Calif. -- and the business now occupying the house in which Muybridge was born in Kingston-upon-Thames: It is a computer store or, as she puts it, "a shell stuffed with California." All this, and so much more, emanating from that moment in 1872 when a man photographed a horse and tapped into "one of the great enigmas of modern life: why the representation of a thing can fascinate those who would ignore the original." While this is the one rare matter Solnit does not, and probably cannot, explain, she does help us to see, perhaps for the first time with such clarity and verve, the direct line between Muybridge's trotting horse and America's, if not the world's, most passionate pastime: watching lives, and stories, unfold through pictures that move.

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From 'River of Shadows'

Through the new technologies -- the train to the landscape, the camera to the spectacle -- the Victorians were trying to find their way back, but where they had lost the old familiar things they recovered exotic new ones. What they had lost was solid; what they gained was made out of air. That exotic new world of images speeding by would become the true home of those who spent their Saturdays watching images beamed across the darkness of the movie theater, then their evenings watching images beamed through the atmosphere and brought home into a box like a camera obscura or a crystal ball, then their waking hours surfing the Internet wired like the old telegraph system. Muybridge was a doorway, a pivot between that old world and ours, and to follow him is to follow the choices that got us here.

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