River of Shadows

Rebecca Solnit

Read November 2004

Rebecca Solnit's River of Shadows, subtitled Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, is the kind of book you don't want to end—and when it does, you can't easily examine another one.

Eadweard Muybridge has become a cliche of art museum fare. You know the genre: old black-and-white strips of a man (usually naked) walking, a woman (often also naked) pouring water, a dog running...who was this man? Why did he take so many thousands of strips of objects in motion? If we think hard, we may recall that he settled a bet: Does a trotting horse ever lift all four legs off the ground? Yes, we recall, it does, and Muybridge provided the evidence. Thus satisfied, we cast him back into the recesses of our minds.

Here's a salient fact: Muybridge's employer, for whom he resolved the horse question, was named Leland Stanford. When Muybridge first encountered the problem, the necessary photographic technology simply did not exist. His photographs opened new scientific and philosophical questions, not unlike Harold Edgerton's decades later. Had he never met Stanford, he might have already secured a small place in photography's pantheon. He suffered from a life-changing (and possibly brain-affecting) accident, murdered a man, conducted studies of clouds, presented one of the most honest and enlightened views of the West, may have helped inspire Modern art, and conducted later work that clearly inspired the story-board of the cinema.

Solnit isn't interested in writing a straight biography, despite the wealth of (surprising!) material at her disposal. Rather, this book is a reflection on several related topics that and bound tighter still by Muybridge: the impact of the railways, the development of the West, the advance of the railway barons, the taming of nature, the personification of corporations (p. 168; is this why Americans refer to corporations in the singular, whereas the British use the plural?), the advent of recreational travel (and photography's role as its handmaiden), and the increasingly detailed views of time and space. (In this last one, however, Solnit overreaches: she attributes the demise of academic painting to this exposition of time (p. 197), but the corresponding expansion of space had already happened centuries ago with the microscope.) Ultimately, Muybridge competes with—and relinquishes nearly equal billing to—California for the author's attention: a resident, Solnit pens a love poem, fraught with complexity. This only further enriches the book.

Solnit's philosophical bent keeps from her delving into details we would have liked to read. She is maddeningly short on technical details of Muybridge's equipment (though we do learn that he had the insight to underexpose his early photographs, since that still let him capture salient detail). Muybridge suffers from a stagecoach accident in his youth (p. 38-39) that leaves him with a bump in his head, a mordant wit, and a possibly affected personality; but too much is attributed to this bump. Just for once, when we wish an author would try to analyze Muybridge's personality, she refrains from it. As a result, we are told his perceptions of nature and of Indians are different from the majoritarian view, but never really learn why. And when Muybridge is, remarkably, acquitted of a murder he commits (p. 144), we don't learn just how (un)common this was.

These are minor complaints in the face of an inspiring book whose production values match the prose and the content (the use of a series of Muybridge's photographs—featuring Muybridge—on pages 3-23 are just another inspired touch). Solnit declares (p. 11), ``What distinguishes a technological world is that the terms of nature are obscured; one need not live quite in the present or the local''. Her three transformers of time (p. 13-14) are the railways, geology, and photography. To this diverse yarn she applies a light touch to nevertheless weave a deeply meditative tale. It will not easily be surpassed.