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Rebecca Solnit, River of Shadows: Eadward Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (New York: Penguin Books, 2003, $15.00, 305 pages, ISBN 0-14-200410-3)—Jeff Filipiak, Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design


River of Shadows—the title evokes more than it illustrates, and as such serves as an appropriate lure for this suggestive text. Eadward Muybridge is the titular subject, but only part of the book functions as biography. Rebecca Solnit lets her curiosity range widely, straying quite far from Muybridge in order to explore changes occurring in perception during the 1860s to 1880s, for illustrating the details of Muybridge’s life is but one of her major goals (evidence for those details is limited, anyway). Equally important to Solnit is to propose possibilities, to give the reader a sense of key changes in the period, to create a space in which the reader’s historical curiosity can be awakened, and to inspire the reader to find connections.

The book is based on the life and achievements of the man who named himself Eadweard Muybridge. He took pioneering photographs of places from Alaska to Central America; witnessed an intriguing war landscape close up; helped develop motion pictures; and killed a man. His life possessed enough drama to keep a reader (or viewer, perhaps) excited. Not only that, but as Solnit demonstrates, he produced work which was influenced by (and perhaps commented on) many of the key social and technological changes of his time, providing an intriguing window into that period’s history. In particular, the grappling he did with perceptions of time and space may prove enticing to current academics. Solnit found a great subject for a story, and has written about it with the sweep and curiosity she has demonstrated in her other books. One does not have to be persuaded that he held the singular historical significance she assigns to him (often at the expense of others) as the “absolute beginning point” for movies and Silicon Valley to appreciate how his work helps illuminate various contexts. Muybridge is a subject who deserved closer attention, and this book merits an interested broad audience [6].

Born Edward Muggeridge near London in 1830, he would soon see the railroad and telegraph give time “a different texture, a different pace” [10]. He settled in San Francisco in 1855, but did not become a photographer until the late 1860s. His career was re-directed after a stagecoach accident gave him a head injury, which Solnit suggests might have altered the way he looked at the world. In 1874, he discovered that his wife Flora was having an affair, which led him to kill the charming rogue Harry Larkyns—and he was acquitted by a California jury which chose to pardon this act of revenge.

In 1872 he began collaborating with railroad baron Leland Stanford, a force on the national scene, on motion studies, photographing a horse in motion. In 1877 Muybridge produced the images he is most famous for, photographing a moving horse in intervals, a key step in the development of moving pictures. Muybridge and Stanford’s staff produced technology capable of freezing briefer moments of time than the human eye could discern; photography could now see more than the human eye could. This was the clearest way in which his photography enabled (and sometimes forced) people to think about how humans encountered the world—but as Solnit suggests, many other aspects of his work, and of photography of the time, contributed to changes in perception. Muybridge’s methods of taking pictures, as well as the ways in which he displayed those pictures to audiences, were important innovations leading to the development of motion pictures.

Further motion studies which Muybridge performed drew the interest of intellectuals, including doctors, Thomas Eakins, and French painters—indeed, one intriguing theme in this book is the overlaps between art and science. Solnit comfortably treats the history of technology as something overlapping with art history, and shows how those can be lenses used to view intellectual history and general trends of the period. Photography also provides a means for her to explore themes in panorama, entertainment, spectacle, and toys. Muybridge was an innovator on a variety of levels (as were other photographers of his day); for instance, he “never had to distinguish between creative and documentary photography,” for the development of new equipment and new perspectives was often necessary just to capture a scene on film.

Solnit does an effective job explaining changes occurring at the time, providing a lot of context for the reader. Her ten chapters generally function as set pieces, somewhat independent of each other, though tied together by Muybridge’s involvement in the issues. Chapters discuss topics including Muybridge’s interest in photographing clouds, Yosemite, and panoramas of San Francisco. Generally, chapters begin with a striking image, then move on to tell a series of intriguing stories. Each chapter then finishes with a more analytical section, effectively helping to draw connections for the reader.

She works to tie an awful lot of different threads to him, which is exciting—however, at times the narrative can spend quite a bit of time discussing issues in which Muybridge was only slightly involved. This book is perhaps not so much about Muybridge himself as about larger stories of which he was a part. For instance, she presents the reader with a lot of material on the development of the transcontinental railroad, geology in the 19th century, and the reasons for the Modoc War—allowing the reader to see (and, hopefully, imagine their own) connections. This is exciting, but at times it feels like some threads were left dangling; for instance, while a discussion of opposition to railroad power is a useful look at a major theme of American history during that period, she provides no evidence of Muybridge’s opinions on politics (except the approval of Stanford’s methods which their collaboration implies), so it is difficult to understand his relationship to that issue.

Solnit links these topics together, particularly effectively in considerations of change and time—for instance, Muybridge was significantly more interested in depicting moving water in his photographs than others were. Muybridge photographed both city scenes and Yosemite, and he photographed the rocky terrain of the Modoc War as well as the artificial laboratories of sorts he used to capture both humans and animals in motion. Whether photographing “nature” or “culture,” he found it equally possible to explore the perspectives he wished to; he found both landscapes and humans wherever he worked. Unlike most landscape photography of his day, he avidly depicted the native peoples of Yosemite, feeling they were a part of what he wanted to represent. On the other hand, this photographer produced no portraits—his representations maintained a distance.

I expect that this would be an enjoyable and stimulating history read for the non-specialist. She enlivens her text with intriguing turns of phrase: “Gold Rush California was born dancing, but it danced on the giant stump of what had come before” [30]; “Yosemite seems like the pinup a lonely soldier tacks up […] an ideal of place” [110]. Those and other phrases don’t just sound clever, either—they grow out of, and illuminate, her themes. The writing, appropriately enough, flows nicely; she suggests many things to the reader, without surrounding those suggestions with a mass of pedantic detail that might scare some off. Some playful elements, including a “flip-book” enabled by 11 pages with images of a walking Muybridge in the corner, add to the lively nature of her writing.

Solnit did not really aim to produce the “standard” work on Muybridge, or a work deeply grounded in historiographical debates (and this is a work without in-text citations). I imagine this would be an intriguing read for the general reader, or for introductory courses in history of technology. It will perhaps be useful in other fields, like the history of photography, as a means of demonstrating connections between trends in those fields, and developments in others and in broader historical narratives.

Part of her vision for the work can be seen in her argument that “the ‘great man’ version of history has been much attacked in recent years, but Muybridge is worth examination not because without him there would have been no movies but because” he left his “particular fingerprints” at the origin [152]. She is not as convincing on how those fingerprints shaped movies today as on how his photographs dealt with issues of motion, time and place which were central dilemmas for people dealing with changes occurring in era (San Francisco’s growth, railroads, Indian removal.) And yet, by suggesting those connections she may interest readers who would not otherwise find his work relevant.

Solnit has a good sense of which details will be relevant or interesting. She gives proper amount of weight to story of the man Muybridge killed, for instance. That may be somewhat tenuously linked to his photography, but who would want to read a book like this about a man who killed someone and not hear that story in enough detail? She skillfully uses evidence presented at trial to find a depth of detail she rarely found elsewhere on Muybridge. To some extent, she works around the limited material available on him by presenting material on larger historical trends which she suggests influenced him.

Perhaps what she does best in this book is to allow the reader to make connections. This text can perk a reader's curiosity about a whole series of issues. It could be a successful means for getting students thinking about ideas, and how different perspectives help shape the world; perhaps a useful introduction into the history of ideas. She shows how philosophical points—what truth meant in photography, for instance—were addressed through experiments in perception. And she points out how those are issues we are still engaging today (most effectively through her material on the movies, and on California’s identity), connecting past and present in a way that can be appreciated by historians and non-historians alike.

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