History, like evolution, or flying an airplane, seems to consist not of gradual changes but of long periods where nothing much happens, punctuated by brief, terrifying moments where the shape of things to come is largely determined. The years 1860 to 1880 appear in retrospect to have been one of those moments. Not only did those two decades give us the showy inventions, the phonograph, the telephone and the electric light, dynamite and the typewriter, barbed wire and reinforced concrete, blue jeans, the automobile, lawn tennis and the square-bottomed paper bag; they also witnessed a host of less tangible developments that would change the way people thought about the world, and the directions they took in trying to understand it. In 1860, the neurologist Broca localized a part of the brain responsible for speech, opening the door to modern neurology and more generally to the understanding of the brain as a mechanism; in the late 1860s, the editor William Dean Howells undertook to bring realism to American fiction, where it has been plaguing writers ever since. And in 1877, a man named Edward Muybridge photographed a racehorse named Occident trotting in Palo Alto, California.
Photography was not a new invention in the 1870s; neither were racehorses. But the record, on film, of a moving animal, was something the world had never seen before, and, as Rebecca Solnit argues in her book River of Shadows, it changed everything. The image of motion which Muybridge pioneered was the direct precursor of the moving image; 12 years after Muybridge froze Occident in mid-trot, the Lumière brothers unveiled their Cinematographe, and the picture came to life again. An age of images had begun; it would lead on to television, and even to the Internetto all the technologies that turn bodies and places into the ghostly representations among which we spend most of our waking hours. Muybridge cannot be held accountable for all of this, of course. There were other forces at work, and Solnit's book gives an account of some of them: the rise of modern capitalism, as embodied by the rail baron Leland Stanford; the westward migrations that peopled Hollywood and Silicon Valley. Muybridge is a small figure against this vast canvas, but well placed: He is, Solnit suggests, "a doorway, a pivot between that old world and ours, and to follow him is to follow the choices that got us here."
And follow him she does. River of Shadows is practically a biography; it could be a biography, if only less happened in it. Muybridge's life is only one of the stories Solnit tells, although there's enough material in it for a book and a half. Born Edward James Muggeridge in 1830, Muybridge (he changed his name three times: once from the Harry Potterish Muggeridge to the faintly grinding Muygridge, then to Muybridge, and finally from Edward to the book-report-confounding Eadweard) left England for America in the early 1850s, and promptly disappeared. Solnit finds him in San Francisco, where he worked as a bookseller, made a name for himself by photographing landscapes with unusually dramatic clouds, went to Yosemite to shoot the wilderness (he was among the first to do so), and to the Lava Beds of central California to document the government's war on the Modoc Indians. In the course of this activity he fell from a stagecoach and sustained serious head injuries, invented a camera with a high-speed shutter, and shot his wife's lover dead at a mine in Calistoga.
The murder and the trial that followed have fueled other works of fiction and nonfiction (Philip Glass's The Photographer, among others), but Solnit's treatment of them still feels fresh. She narrates the events leading up to the murder briskly, then has the good sense to let Muybridge's lawyer, the florid William Wirt Pendegast, speak. Pendegast contended that Muybridge's old head injuries had driven him insane, and wound up his argument thus: "I cannot ask you to send this man forth to family and homehe has none. . . . But I do ask you to send him forth freelet him take up the thread of his broken life, and resume that profession on which his genius had shed so much lusterthe profession which is now his only love. Let him go forth into the green fields, by the bright waters, through the beautiful vallies [sic], and up and down the swelling coast, and in the active work of securing shadows of their beauty by the magic of his art, he may gain 'surcease of sorrow' and pass on to his allotted end in comparative peace." The jury did. It was the first time the insanity defense had been used successfully in court.
Then came the motion studies. Muybridge was hired by Stanford (whom Solnit describes as looking like "a badly taxidermized badger") not, as is popularly told, to settle a bet as to whether a trotting horse ever has all four feet off the ground, but out of sheer scientific curiosity. Solnit gives a thorough account of the various technological breakthroughs involved in taking pictures of a moving horse, and of the implications Muybridge's pictures had in the larger world. (The French painter Meissonier, for example, was heartbrokenhe had been observing horses closely, but, it turned out, inaccurately, all his life.) And, of course, money wins in the end: Once Stanford realized that the motion studies were worth something, he and his friend, the aptly named J.D.B. Stillman, wrested credit for them from Muybridge, who spent the last years of his life photographing moving humans and campaigning to be acknowledged as the author of his own work.
Solnit has much to say about the power of money. Interspersed among the biographical sections in River of Shadows is an argument about how capital transformed not only the American West (a transformation in which the Gold Rush, the slaughter and expulsion of Native Americans, and the transcontinental railroad figure prominently, and Solnit has something to say about each), but the entire fabric of the modern world, from a place where place mattered to an environment without space or time, in short, a river of shadows. The scope of this transformation defies qualitative assessment, and Solnit is appropriately cautious about judging it. There is, nonetheless, a muted anger in her book, at the destruction wrought on humans and their landscape by mining, by settlement, by tourism and industry. You can hear it in her conclusion, when she observes that "The world seems run from Silicon Valley now, run by engineers . . . whose constant question is never why? but how?" Like Muybridge himself, Solnit seems to be yearning for an alternative, a technology subordinate to purpose and desire. And it is the measure of her graceful, thoughtful book that she finds a place where machines and desires are reconciled: in the analogy she draws between the Ghost Dance (which the Modoc, among other tribes, thought would bring back their dead ancestors) and the moving picture: "Cinema would itself be a kind of Ghost Dance. It was and is a breach in the wall between the past and the present, one that lets the dead return, albeit as images of flickering light, rather than phantoms in the dark or armies marching across the land." It's a moment when the river of invention seems to pause, and to let something else through, something which is at once older and more hopeful than progress.
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in New York.