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A lens on history

A new volume shows early photographer Eadweard Muybridge as a key figure in the West's development.

October 09, 2003|Marc Weingarten | Special to The Times

For those with even a cursory knowledge of art history, the name Eadweard Muybridge rings familiar, primarily because his widely published 1872 motion studies of trotting horses begat the development of cinema.

For well over a century, Muybridge remained a crucial but marginalized figure, an important footnote in photography's historical lineage.

Writer Rebecca Solnit, who has staked out her own territory as a kind of historian of time and space and whose previous book was a cultural history of walking, suspected there might be more to Muybridge and his epoch than had been previously documented. So she started digging.

The end result is "River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West," a discursive book that places Muybridge at the center of a cultural moment at the turn of the century that augured the development of the modern-day West.

Solnit seamlessly gathers strands of art history, nature studies, biography and cultural theory into a vivid diorama of a curious era in which the forces of industrialization fostered scientific inquiry, and the Western wilderness was besieged by encroaching urbanization at the same time that it was being scrutinized for evolutionary clues and documented to an unprecedented extent.

The period, with its advances in photography, telegraphy and travel, spurred the transition from the Victorian era into the 20th century and its bold new ways of harnessing time and space. Muybridge, Solnit writes, was a "doorway, a pivot between that old world and ours, and to follow him is to follow the choices that got us here."

"My interest in time, speed and technology drew me to Muybridge," Solnit says from her San Francisco home. "I had a hunch that there was something very interesting about him, and it turned out to be this fabulous story about the development of the West."

What the author uncovered was a man -- touched with intuitive genius, vain, intemperate, enamored of his moneyed patrons -- whose developments in photography unleashed the energies of what would become the movie business. He is thus one of the unsung figures in the development of modern-day California.

Solnit reclaims Muybridge as a key chronicler of a vanishing region, specifically in his revolutionary panoramas of a developing San Francisco and his haunting photos of Yosemite. Those pictures captured a vestigial, untamed Wild West at a time when artists such as painter Albert Bierstadt and photographer Carleton Watkins were trying to tame it in their pristine landscapes.

A small but judicious selection of Muybridge's Yosemite pictures and motion studies are currently on display in Eadweard Muybridge: Landscape and Motion Studies, 1872-1855, an exhibit that runs through Nov. 8 at the Michael Dawson Gallery. A combination art gallery and rare-book seller located in a formerly private home tucked away on Larchmont Boulevard, Michael Dawson is the oldest continuously operating bookstore in L.A. -- an apt venue in which to regard Muybridge's work.

Muybridge's biography is shot through with holes. He was born in England in 1830 and emigrated to the United States around 1852. By 1855 he had settled in San Francisco, selling art books. In 1860 he sustained a traumatic head injury while riding a stagecoach. The injury, Solnit speculates in the book, might have affected a region of his brain that altered his personality, morphing him from a repressed Victorian into an untrammeled, deeply eccentric maverick.

"His work is fascinating because it shows an enthusiasm for chaos, complexity, and tangles and thickets," Solnit says.

It also might have driven Muybridge to murder his wife's lover, a crime for which he was tried and found innocent by reason of insanity.

After his head injury, Solnit argues, Muybridge was prone to emotional disorientation and erratic behavior.

"He never erased his own persona in his work," Solnit says. "There's a lot of moodiness and romanticism, a weirdly beautiful tension."

Muybridge's famous motion studies of railroad baron Leland Stanford's trotting racehorses were shot with multiple cameras using Muybridge's most important invention, the fast camera shutter, which enabled him to create sequential images that accurately captured movement through time.

"There's a tension between the gridded, dispassionate exposition and the lyrical, eccentric nature of the motion studies that's present in a lot of contemporary art," Solnit says. "He's clearly projecting something in those studies that isn't strictly scientific."

Despite his achievements, Muybridge was a prophet without honor. Once the motion studies became famous and were used as raw material for artists such as Degas and Thomas Eakins, Stanford tried to claim credit for them, and Muybridge sued him. The suit was dismissed, but history has proven that Muybridge's contributions to modern culture are seminal.

"It's very Hollywood, don't you think?" Solnit says. "It's like the producer ripping off the director."


Eadweard Muybridge

Author Rebecca Solnit

What: Talking about and signing her book, "River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West."

Where: Dawson's Book Shop,

535 N. Larchmont Blvd.

When: Tuesday, 7:30 p.m.

Info: (323) 469-2186 or


What: Eadweard Muybridge: Landscapes and Motion Studies, 1872-1885.

Where: Michael Dawson Gallery, inside Dawson's Book Shop

When: Wednesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Mondays and Tuesday by appointment. Ends Nov. 8.

Marc Weingarten can be contacted at

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