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RIVER OF SHADOWS by Rebecca Solnit


Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West

by Rebecca Solnit

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-670-03176-3
Publisher: Viking

Gracefully written, thoroughly well-considered life of the 19th-century California immigrant whose strange experiments in photography yielded both Hollywood and Silicon Valley.

That’s a tall claim, but Solnit (Wanderlust, 2000, etc.) defends it capably, if sometimes obliquely. In the way of many transplants to California, English-born Eadweard Muybridge (1830–94) reinvented himself a few times—changing his name, for example, from the slightly less exotic Edward James Muggeridge—before settling down in San Francisco in 1855. Within a few years, Solnit remarks, he “became a father, a murderer, and a widower, invented a clock, patented two photographic innovations, [and] achieved international renown as an artist and a scientist.” He also attracted a sympathetic ally in railroad baron Leland Stanford (1824–93), who commissioned him to photograph a racehorse on the run to settle a bet as to whether a trotter ever has all four feet off the ground at the same time, thereby helping Muybridge become one of the most famous photographers of the day. One of many motion studies Muybridge conducted, the resulting sequence of photographs inspired other students of photography to press forward with the “zootropic” inventions that would soon thereafter yield the moving picture and thus Hollywood. Out of Stanford’s belief in bankrolling experimenters such as Muybridge, Solnit writes, came Stanford University, seedbed of Silicon Valley. Together, the entertainment and high-tech industries “changed the world . . . from a world of places and materials to a world of representations and information, a world of vastly greater reach and less solid grounding”—again, it seems, a perfectly California thing to do. Solnit does a fine job of placing Muybridge’s and Stanford’s contributions in the context of the other technological changes sweeping the world at the time, and of describing the role of photography in shaping late Victorians’ worldview and culture. She writes with considerable flair, her smart commentary illuminating the dozens of images that accompany her text.

A welcome contribution to the literature of photography and of California.