River of Shadows, (2003 - 300 pages by Rebecca Solnit) although it does not mention Muybridge on Donner Summit (see the March, ‘18 Heirloom), is a really good non-fiction read and since Muybridge was on Donner Summit we can talk about the book.
This is a scholarly work first setting Muybridge into his time, the Industrial Revolution with the changes and speed that time entailed. Most simply the world went from walking and horse or barge speed to hurtling along at railroad speed of 20-30 miles per hour. What an amazing change that must have been. Suddenly everything was closer both to visit and from which to get products. In a larger sense a long list of inventions that included photography, the telegraph and the telephone annihilated time and space. Muybridge fit into that – Rebecca Solnit, the author, says he “grasped time itself, made it stand still, and then made it run again, over and over.” Muybridge’s photography documented slices of time that could be seen over and over. Then his motion studies showed movement, some of which had been invisible, and precursors of motion pictures could be run again and again.
This book is about Muybridge; it’s about his pioneering photography in both landscape and motion, but along with that it’s also about America in the second half of the 19th Century. Describing Muybridge and the new age Solnit describes “a pivot from the old world to new…” The sped up Industrial Age was a doorway to today where people watch videos and surf the internet. Muybridge helped set the foundation for that change.
In writing about Muybridge in the 19th Century we get perspective for what California was like. Of course there is the biography: his start in England, stint of a bookseller and business man, the stage accident that changed his personality, his return to San Francisco, marriage, murder, pioneering landscape photography, and his work capturing time and motion. It’s what goes with that that sets this book apart.
Solnit’s description of the vibrance of San Francisco and California is a perfect example of how much broader and more interesting her biography of Muybridge is, In San Francisco there were species found nowhere else and the city “eliminated one of those butterfly species in the nineteenth century…. It developed its own rare specimens: eccentrics, visionaries, and radicals… It had a coastline of inlets and coves, including the great natural cove around which a downtown quickly sprang up. There were so many ships’ masts in the harbor that observers compared it to a forest. The ships the gold seekers came in were left to rot… though some were dragged ashore to use as storerooms. There was a land rush… people took to buying… underwater real estate… Montgomery Street was where Muybridge sold books and his galleries sold his photographs… [it ended up several blocks inland after shoreline filling] There were shacks and tent cities… [the city burned a number of times and] volunteer fire departments became important social and political clubs that strove to outdo each other with equipment and uniforms and sometimes fought each other over who would put out a fire while the blaze raged. There were literary magazines and myriad newspapers. … San Francisco gloried in its urbanity, in banquets and music, business deals and political organizations. As someone was listening to opera or buying art books someone in the gold country was being shot with an obsidian arrowhead or hanged with a dirty rope.”
Solnit fits Muybrige into the California scene. He changed his name a number of times during his lifetime and reinvented himself a number of times. The changes of name and occupation fit a perspective of California. It was a land of new opportunities and lives. Name changes and new or exaggerated histories of previous lives went along with the new land. Solnit mentions the popular tune of the time, “What Was Your Name in the States?” More perspective on the new society is offered by including literature: Mark Twain and Bret Harte and their stories of the west. San Francisco was “well populated with liars, delusionaries, confidence men, men disguised as women, and women disguised… as men.” That extended to the whole west and other famous personalities who tried on various roles are brought in: Wild Bill Hickok, Davy Crocket, Wyatt Earp, Buffalo Bill, etc. “The West was… an arena for their self-invention, and truth was whatever the winner said it was.” “The men and women of the West scraped the glass of their own lives whenever they wanted to make a new image there, and San Francisco was a hothouse made out of these lives, incubation fantasies, erasures, and new beginnings.” Muybridge fit right in.
Solnit also focuses, of course, on Muybridge photography and her description of one view in Yosemite is a good example of her analysis of his various works, “His stereophotograph looking straight down into the crevice [at Yosemite] that bisects the picture is nothing like a conventional landscape composition. The image conveys a sense of vertigo and of almost anatomical form. With boulders wedged deep within it, this is a sensual cleft and a dangerous one.” Then there is an explanation of how different his photographs were from the work of other photographers at the time.
Other photographers and artists captured Nature as “unfallen Eden or as “Adam standing on the brink of our undiscovered continent” without man yet. Muybridge photographed, for example, the Native Americans and the damages from man’s presence. Muybridge wasn’t after purity; he was after reality and included “footpaths, picket fences, idling figures…” Some pictures “rage with a chaos of downed trees, gnarled trunks, shattered debris, and sharp rocks, the last perhaps shaken loose by the he earthquake… Such debris fills the foreground of many of the pictures. It looks like the wreckage from events of tremendous violence, and though the images are as dramatic as the work of his peers, they bear no traces of their beneficent deity.”
In placing Muybridge into perspective, as part of his time, lots of subjects are covered: buffalo, the transcontinental railroad, the history of motion in photography, the Chinese, the railroad strike, the Big Four and the railroad in the state, Native Americans, the Modoc War, the women’s movement, John Muir, Albert Bierstadt, Clarence King ( Government survey of 1874), Carleton Watkins (photographer), spiritualism, etc.
A good portion of the book is devoted, at different times, to what made Muybridge famous for capturing motion, which is probably what people who have heard of him remember. “In 1872 the whole world seemed to be in motion…”. With the railroad, for example, people went faster than nature. With the telegraph they could communicate faster. With photography they could see faster and see what was hidden. Leland Stanford contacted Muybridge (there was apparently no bet despite that apparent myth) to photograph his horses in motion. By the following year experiments had shown that horses do lift all four feet off the ground as they trot. There followed more experiments, inventions, and thousands of photographs to capture motion and capture what is hidden by the speed of motion, such as the spokes of a spinning wheel.
At the end Muybridge was surpassed by technological change and was living in England again. He died one day out in his garden digging a pond in the shape of the Great Lakes. Muybridge was a pathfinder but to be a pathfinder you have to be a little bit different. Putting the Great Lakes in your back yard is a bit different.