The frontispiece to this biographical study is an unknown photographer’s portrait of the bearded Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) taken in about 1872. He sits awkwardly hunched on a crate with his back against a sequoia, grimly frowning into the distance, wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a rumpled three-piece suit. His ragged trouser hems are prominent in the foreground, along with his muddy wrinkled boots. He looks the image of a rebel, an uneasy outsider, perhaps mad, bad and dangerous to know, perhaps a genius, certainly a vexed spirit.
Except for two portraits of his wife and two of an actor, all the other photographs are by Muybridge himself. None of them is a portrait. Instead, they show this pioneering photographer’s restless shifts of subject, from the hundreds of commercial scenes he made for the popular stereoscope, including every sort of tourist attraction and banal local phenomenon, to the poetic views he took of the vast spaces of the Yosemite Valley, to straight documentation, whether of stages in railroad building and coffee production, of chain-gangs and classrooms, of Alaskan lighthouses and Guatemalan churches, or of the US Army’s war against the Modoc Indian tribes. He photographed several multipartite panoramas of San Francisco. He also photographed spectacular arrangements of clouds. Finally, he devoted himself to the many eerily obsessive motion studies of animals, birds and persons that have made him famous in camera history as a founding father of the movies.
Rebecca Solnit’s striking introductory photograph shows what she wants us to see in Muybridge’s own pictures, and in him. Her subject is not just his life, but the unstable creative intensity of his relation to his world: the Wild West of the United States, between the end of the Civil War and the end of the 19th century, with special emphasis on California. She reminds us that Hollywood the dream empire and Silicon Valley the information empire both arose there, and she more or less claims that neither could have sprung from anywhere else. Solnit also claims that Muybridge – his peculiar inventive work and changeable life, his very personality – contributed, at their genesis in the emerging technologies of his time, to the transformative power of the cinema and the computer. In his person, technological genius was combined with commercial opportunism and a potential for myth-making to make him Solnit’s patron saint of California.
Solnit wants us to see Muybridge as both prophet and apostle, as someone who actively helped to change the old world, contained for millennia by human limitations that encouraged belief in clear categories, into our new one with less certain boundaries and barriers. We now take it for granted that technology creates not only art but the perception of art, along with the media through which we perceive the character of reality. We are quite used to communicating and moving across formerly unbridgeable distances, including outer space. In that sense technology has changed our sense of possible and permissible human behaviour, along with our understanding of vision and memory, and of what imagery is and does. Solnit dwells on the beginnings of these transformations, using Muybridge as the focus of her story, which tells, among other things, how the actual land in the American West was destroyed as it was replaced by the idea and image of the land.
She begins in the middle of Muybridge’s life, with the high-speed photograph of a trotting horse he contrived to make for Leland Stanford in 1872, to prove that all four of its feet did leave the ground at once for an instant. Many people didn’t believe this was possible. The trot naturally required steady support, and you could see one hoof providing it at all times – but no, that turned out to be an illusion. Muybridge’s photo stopped time, and you could see all four off the ground. Some years later, and despite the long history of realistic art up to then, which had been registering it as the plain evidence of the senses, Muybridge exploded another illusion about horses when he proved the non-existence of the famous ‘flying gallop’, with two symmetrical pairs of hoofs cleaving the air.
Muybridge’s connection with Stanford was important for both of them, and is central to Solnit’s epic tale. Stanford was a California tycoon in the robber baron style, fabulously rich from the building and linking of the transcontinental railroads, which devastated the ways and beliefs of many local native peoples, but also made possible swift transport over unheard-of distances, requiring the consequent standardised time-keeping we take for granted now, and creating manufacture and commerce in the region to a degree unmatched even by the industrial East. Stanford’s fellow tycoons in these projects were Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker and Collis P. Huntington – ‘and their corruption was as big as their profit,’ Solnit says. These ‘Big Four’, all former Sacramento storekeepers who had sold goods to Gold Rush miners, had come to monopolise political and economic power in California and most of the West. Stanford became both governor and senator.
Speed mattered to him. Along with railroads he took up racehorses, eventually owning eight hundred of them on his immense ranch, where, Solnit reports, the carrot crop grown to feed the colts covered sixty acres. This vast domain was later to become the site of Stanford University, which Stanford and his wife founded in memory of their son, who died of typhoid in 1884 – grief had modified the robber baron and corrupt politician in the direction of philanthropy. Solnit makes much of the fact that Muybridge’s motion studies took place where future technologies were to be conceived. Research conducted at Stanford University ultimately led to the productions of Silicon Valley, just as Muybridge’s had led to the cinema.
In the 1870s, however, Stanford went on supporting Muybridge’s expensive technical experiments in motion photography because he was interested in the physical capacities and qualities of horses, not in promoting the advance of camera art. Solnit carefully points to Muybridge’s tacit complicity in Stanford’s other, more brutal enterprises and in those of the other big companies he was making pictures for at the same time; this allies him with the kind of practical genius that pays little heed to human rights or feelings, while undeniably increasing the scope of human life in general. She wants to praise Muybridge’s restless inventive drive and basic pictorial talent, while acknowledging his lack of interest in other people, or even in his own vision and imagination. She shows him devoid of self-knowledge and insight, of any political sense and of either a romantic or realist ideology.
Muybridge may not have been a completely dedicated imaginative artist, but he wasn’t just a technical inventor aiming simply to conquer movement with the camera. Solnit points to a conscious poetry in his different sorts of picture. He was never merely the detached observer, nor merely the flattering tool of those with power and money, but akin to advertising artists and visual geniuses in the entertainment business, both of whom use technology to create a modern vision without that having been their primary aim. She emphasises Muybridge’s ability to foster his own artistic originality while believing less in art itself than in technological advance – all very different from Cézanne, Monet and company over in Paris. Muybridge felt himself to be an artist, but he thought only about how to improve the camera.
Solnit is not merely a California chauvinist, she is a San Francisco chauvinist, San Francisco having been the Capital of the Wild West, initially because it was the Capital of the Gold Rush. She describes her hero, then bearing the name Edward Muggeridge, arriving there in the autumn of 1855, a youth escaping a tedious provincial future in the family coal and grain business in Kingston-on-Thames. He had left England in 1852, but his three-year journey across America from New York has not been traced, although his later letters mention New Orleans and the South.
Solnit describes the San Francisco young Muggeridge found, full of adventurous inhabitants perpetually reinventing themselves, sliding out from under their difficulties and moving on in new guises. She sees in the place a ferment, a matrix, a generative ambience embodied in her shifting, gifted hero. She can then go on to find Muybridge and California together more directly responsible for creating the mobile culture of the modern world than anybody in Paris during the same period, despite Parisian dominance in fine art and Parisian fame as the ‘capital of the 19th century’. ‘California,’ she says, ‘had come unmoored from the past during the Gold Rush, and it is this lack of templates, of precedents, that seems to have made the place a capital of social and technological innovation ever since.’ That is, the more important revolution of 1848 was the Gold Rush of 1849.
Her book is full of historical accounts in which Muybridge has no direct part: accounts of the American railroads, their origins and after-effects, of the Indian wars and theirs, of the Modoc Indians and their particular heroes, history and cosmology, of San Francisco’s past and its strikes and riots, of the photographers of the Civil War and their later work, of the character and purpose of 19th-century World’s Fairs, of feminism, of spiritualism and much, much more. Within each are dramatic anecdotes – of conflict and death, hope and betrayal, suspense and pathos. Her rhetorical gifts are highly developed, and the scope, speed and pitch of her narratives make this book both absorbing and exhausting.
Once settled in San Francisco in 1855, Muggeridge followed the local custom of self-creation. He invented himself as a bookseller named Muygridge, and stayed as that during the rest of the 1850s. Then – but only in the late 1860s – he went into the photography business under the name of Edward J. Muybridge, making and selling popular stereoscopic views. He also functioned as an itinerant photographer who signed his name as Helios, advertised as specialising in ‘private residences, ranches, animals, ships, warehouses, interiors etc’, and operating out of a carriage called ‘The Flying Studio’. During the 1870s he became a successful landscape photographer signing himself Muybridge (no initials, no first names), best known for his large views of Yosemite made on ‘mammoth’ plates, 24 by 22 inches. He was also hired by the US Army to document its expulsion of the Modoc tribes from their ancestral territory, the Lost River of Oregon and the California Lava Beds, more photographic complicity in destructive modern projects, also resulting in independently compelling pictures. The Modoc pictures are all peaceable shots of places and persons, no violence. They helped create the myth of the Noble American Savage even as they were documenting his suppression, just as Muybridge’s Yosemite views were promoting the savage beauty of the American wilderness while his shots of miners and railroad workers were recording its demolition with equal skill and zeal.
By the late 1870s, Muybridge had left the mountains, miners, seacoasts and railroads behind for ever, and was installed in the tower of railroad tycoon Mark Hopkins’s vast unfinished mansion, making a huge photographic panorama of San Francisco – the largest of several he had already made, as had many photographers, some from other countries. The historian Weston Naef remarks that followers of Daguerre in the 1840s had already paved the way for San Francisco to be ‘the most frequent subject of panoramic rendering of any city in the world’. Muybridge’s giant panorama of the Wild West’s turbulent capital doubtless buffed up its image and mythified it further.
In the 1880s, however, he abandoned outdoor views and devoted the rest of his career to making his motion studies against mute, artificial backdrops, seeking ways to catch the transient look of moving creatures in multiple hundredths of a second. He continued to reveal odd-looking positions of limbs and bodies not registered by the naked eye, and eventually managed to project a sequence of such individual shots, startling on their own, now re-created in a smooth and patently accurate moving picture. Many of these studies were of his own naked body in action, and of other people as bare as the beasts, although some show figures removing or donning garments and carrying everyday objects. Solnit points out that these nude sequences are ‘both intimate and impersonal’ – the models project no individuality, yet the strips somehow seem to constitute narratives.
They are indeed packed with feeling, the distilled passion of the inspired innovator, which is what keeps Muybridge’s figure sequences alive, still studied by artists and photographers, still mesmerising casual viewers. Solnit dwells on the ones of himself ‘nude with utter unself-consciousness, even facing forward, genitals on view . . . Halfway through his fifties, he was still straight-backed and strong, though age is apparent in the whiteness of his beard and the strained skin of his neck as he raises a tool. In these pictures, he calls himself “ex-athlete”.’ She then discusses the necessary distancing required of any nude photography claiming to be scientific, at that time and since. But it clearly doesn’t completely work.
At the start of the 1880s, while Muybridge was still with him, Leland Stanford invited an old friend of his called Stillman, a doctor and writer, to come to the ranch and write a book on the horse-motion project. Stillman knew nothing about horses’ movements, any more than Stanford did about photography, and the doctor began by making Stanford’s carpenters assemble a horse’s skeleton, to be photographed in various poses. Muybridge had little sympathy with this approach, and he felt the waning of Stanford’s interest. Hoping for a new patron, he left California altogether and took a carefully composed lecture and demonstration of the motion studies to Paris and London, where he was already known for the photographic work he had published in Europe.
In Paris he met Meissonier, the painter most famous for his scrupulous realism. He was expert in large, precisely researched military scenes, many of them historical, where animals and men appeared in correct gear and posture, and period portraits were deftly inserted. His research included the minute study of moving horses’ hooves; to sketch them exactly he followed them along a track, pushed on a wheeled sofa. Meissonier had been devastated by Muybridge’s high-speed horse-motion photographs, which Stanford had shown him on a visit to Paris in 1879. Meissonier saw that they falsified his paintings, and he swore never again to touch a brush. But when Muybridge arrived in 1881, the painter invited a host of celebrities to see him demonstrate the zoopraxiscope – the primordial movie projector he had invented, through which the separate attitudes in the rows of images were blended into live motion.
At the time, Paris was teeming with artistic and photographic innovation. Meissonier’s painted facts were being phased out by the painted truths of Impressionism, and instantaneous photography, no longer miraculous, had acquired the new advantage of dry-plate technology using film, which was phasing out Muybridge’s time-consuming methods using glass. Muybridge was entertained in Paris by Jules-Etienne Marey, the innovative physiologist, who had made the most recent advances in the practical study of bodily movement, and who was inspired by Muybridge to use photography for his further researches. Marey introduced him to Nadar, famous for having photographed the Parisian streets from a floating balloon and the Parisian catacombs by electric light. The two had much in common; but Muybridge produced no work similar to Nadar’s stunning portraits of celebrities, and he found no patron in Paris.
He eventually found one in 1883 back in Philadelphia, where the painter Thomas Eakins had already been impressed and influenced by Muybridge’s work and was using photographic studies for his own pictures. There, the University of Pennsylvania would sponsor his next motion studies, now concentrating on men and women. Sometime in the 1880s, after a visit home to Kingston-on-Thames, Edward became Eadweard – the spelling appears on a monument to the Saxon kings once crowned there. Perhaps, now internationally famous, the self-invented photographer could obliquely hint at having had an early history.
Fate had taken a hand quite early on in shaping Muybridge’s personality and multiform photographic career. The dates show a six-year blank between ‘Muygridge’ the tame bookseller and ‘Muybridge’ the adventurous photographer. This gap began with a serious accident, which seems to have produced an irreversible change in both his psyche and his life. In July 1860, having sold up the book business, the 30-year-old Muygridge took a stagecoach bound for New York, aiming for Europe with no fixed date of return. En route across Texas the horses bolted, the coach crashed into a stump and Muygridge received a blow to the head from which, he later wrote, it took him nine days to regain consciousness and more than a year to recover.
He says he was treated in New York and eventually in London, and he reappeared in San Francisco only in 1866, perhaps having prudently stayed out of the country during the Civil War. He said nothing about what he had been up to all that time, but he had become an accomplished photographer, and was a changed man with a new name. From then on, he was the man in the frontispiece photo, short-tempered, an uneasy loner with complex ambitions and a big talent. Modern experts have suggested that damage to the orbitofrontal cortex, which may have been what he underwent, can lead to fits of rage and a creative bent not evident before.
What, then, did Muybridge learn about photography in 1860s England, where Lewis Carroll and Julia Margaret Cameron were at work? Nothing from them: no portraits by him, no costumed figure studies, no static legendary fantasies. He may have learned the process itself from a manual, or an unnamed practitioner – no word on this. As from 1867, he was a professional photographer, accepting documentary commissions of all kinds; but he was chiefly a landscape artist, recording the look of moving light and air, of ancient geological upheavals, of views seen as if from the eye of an eagle. Motion seems built into their whole idea; and it’s not surprising that his later work with humans and animals was fixated on that, with no element of place at all.
Where did he learn how to become a great landscape artist? Did he look at masterpieces of English landscape painting? Of American paintings of the Hudson River Valley? Of German Romantic landscape painting? Maybe at some of each, somewhere during those six years. Solnit points out that his bookshop had contained illustrated works, many doubtless with conventional landscapes. They lurk, too, in his views, along with elements taken from the work of his contemporaries, the American wilderness painters Frederick Church and especially Alfred Bierstadt, whom he knew, and of whose work Solnit is wrongly dismissive. But Muybridge never acknowledged any outside influence on anything he did or made.
He was certainly aware of the great American photographers of the West, including Carleton Watkins, his main rival, who was already well known for brilliant views of Yosemite Valley. Most of Watkins’s pictures are intense masterpieces and still unsurpassed. All of them nevertheless show a plain, pale sky, since mobile clouds failed to register on outdoor photographs taken at the low speeds permitting Watkins’s bright images of the terrain. As if trying to go one better, Muybridge made a collection of dramatic cloud studies taken at higher speeds (had he seen Constable’s clouds, had he read Ruskin on clouds?), eventually combining these with turbid scenery into compositions far darker and more painterly than Watkins’s clean mountain vistas and empty skies.
Muybridge certainly equalled Watkins in the world’s eyes: both received the Medal of Progress at the 1873 Vienna Exposition. In 1869, Muybridge had published his invention of a spring-shutter for a ‘camera that could see at two different speeds’, so now he could take clouds and land together. ‘Already the manipulation of time and the refinement of camera technology was on his mind’ – as well, evidently, as a wish for keen emotional effects. Laden with heavy equipment, he would have himself lowered over precipices into the void, so he could create the vertiginous, eagle-eye look – like Turner lashed to the mast in a storm, to record the scene of an imminent capsize.
Muybridge was recommended to Stanford to prove the point about the trotting horse in 1872. Their association was to last nine years, during which Stanford provided the private racetrack and footed the huge bill for Muybridge’s experiments in creating ever faster, electrically triggered shutters for his ever more numerous multiple cameras. He got his staff to create ever more sophisticated artificial surroundings against which to demonstrate the precise movements of the horses, and sometimes of other animals and human athletes.
Muybridge’s work at this period was at the cutting edge of instantaneous photography. With characteristic enthusiasm, Solnit observes: ‘The man who had almost been destroyed by speed when the runaway mustangs smashed the stagecoach in Texas would be reborn by speed, would through his speed become the great progenitor, the Abraham of a whole class of machines and representations, of a brave new world of images rather than things.’ But then Muybridge left California for good, and there was a bitter aftermath to his connection with Stanford.
In 1882, he was in London to deliver the lecture and zoopraxiscope demonstration that had already been a sensation in Paris, first at the Royal Institution before the Prince of Wales and other distinguished figures, including the Poet Laureate, and later at the Royal Academy. Solnit describes an Illustrated London News photo of Muybridge at the first occasion, ‘looking grand and fierce with dramatic dark eyebrows and a foaming white beard, an Old Testament prophet – again! – in evening dress’. But back in California and without his knowledge, Stanford and his new collaborator Dr Stillman had published their book, The Horse in Motion. It was illustrated with Muybridge’s horse photographs, but they were redrawn and transformed into engravings; it omitted any humans or other animals, but presumably included posed pictures of the jointed horse skeleton. Muybridge’s name barely appeared in the introduction, there was no sign of it on the title page, and no account of his founding and lengthy direction of the whole project. The introduction he had written for the proposed book before leaving had been omitted.
In London, The Horse in Motion quickly came to the attention of the Royal Society, because they had just invited Muybridge to present a monograph about his photographic work on animal and human locomotion, which would thereafter be published in the Society’s proceedings. It was a signal honour, leading to further opportunities and more honours. Given pause by the Stillman book, the Society’s council summoned and questioned Muybridge. Unfortunately, he had no concrete proof with him in England that his own photographic project wasn’t simply a minor offshoot of the Stanford-Stillman essay, which he was caddishly trying to inflate and promote as all his own work. The Royal Society withdrew its invitation, to Muybridge’s immense chagrin.
He later sued Stanford, but unsuccessfully. The super-tycoon and powerful politician easily defeated the solitary creator, however famous. But in this case, the creation in question had been a constant collaboration, with input not just from Stanford but from technical experts, consultants and assistants, to say nothing of handlers and trainers for animals and athletes – the whole effort was rather like modern movie-making, as Solnit writes. When everyone involved had been heard from in court, Muybridge’s claim to absolute originality did not seem wholly convincing.
But this was not Muybridge’s first time in court, and he had good reason to think he might win. A year after his accident in 1860, he had successfully sued the Butterfield Overland Mail Stage Company and been awarded a tidy sum in damages. In 1872, by now the well-established photographer, he had married Flora, a pretty young San Francisco divorcee to whom he was devoted, but whom he was perpetually abandoning for the Yosemite Valley, the Modoc Lava Beds, Stanford’s ranch and other photographic venues. When he discovered, to his shock and amazement, that his wife’s charming, constant admirer was the real father of her infant son, Muybridge promptly bought a gun, found the man, shot him dead in front of witnesses and waited to be led away.
On trial for murder, Muybridge was portrayed as a madman by witnesses who described his furious rages – the judge had asserted that he must be found guilty or insane. But he was defended by a lawyer who gave, the Chronicle said, ‘one of the most eloquent forensic efforts ever heard in the state’, which focused on the photographer as a betrayed, lonely artist in need of steady domestic comfort, and he was acquitted by a jury later presumed to consist only of sympathetic husbands. In the San Francisco legal milieu, as sketched by Solnit, the defendant in the most melodramatic cases and the lawyer telling the most emotional story were always bound to win.
During the trial, Muybridge sobbed at times, seemed to have a fit when the verdict was read, walked out to cheers and applause, and quickly vanished on a photographic expedition to Panama and Guat-emala for the Pacific Mail and Steamship Company. In his absence, the now abandoned Flora tried to divorce him and be awarded alimony. She failed, failed likewise in health and soon died in hospital, aged 24. Her style and image make one think of Mrs Hurtle in The Way We Live Now, another pretty and risky San Franciscan of that time, but with better luck. Muybridge returned and provided for the orphan’s childhood, but he didn’t keep track of him and left him out of his will.
Such is Solnit’s fidelity to her subject that she becomes defensive and rueful in her account of his obvious faults – his boastfulness, for example, which she claims was nothing compared to that of contemporaries such as Mark Twain. A more dangerous fault was his inability to learn anything from anybody else, and this caught up with him in the 1890s. New methods being developed by others, who did learn from one another, were superseding Muybridge’s. He was still rendering the elements of motion with multiple cameras, and then mounting the separate glass plates onto rotating disks to feed the very limited zoopraxiscope. For scientific work in 1889, his early admirer Marey – who had already adapted a photographic ‘revolver’ being used by an astronomer to record the stages of an eclipse on a single plate – began using the rolled strips of celluloid film invented by George Eastman, which allowed one camera to make many sequential images. Marey showed these rolls to Thomas Edison, who in 1891 went on to perforate the film-strips on the edges for quick ‘tooth-and-claw’ pick-up by camera and projector. Edison used these only to make little peep-show movies in boxes, which were publicly marketed in 1894. The Lumière brothers then used them for the first motion-picture projector devised for an audience, along with the first movies made for it, with a first public screening on 28 December 1895.
Solnit points out that all these men had taken their inspiration from the work of Muybridge, begun 23 years earlier. But alas, he never took anything from them. ‘His work had ground to a halt,’ she mourns; motion was over. She describes him affectionately at the age of 63 (‘His beard was bushier and whiter than ever’) at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, where he had paid for the construction of a Zoopraxigraphical Hall. This was in competition with the belly-dancer on the nearby ‘Street in Cairo’ and other exotic attractions. Solnit observes that Muybridge ‘was still undecided about whether he was an entertainer or a high-minded researcher’. Such indecision undoubtedly affected the tone of his show at the Exposition, which included the same old illustrated lecture. He was a financial failure, and the Zoopraxigraphical Hall was replaced by a highly successful painted panorama of Pompeii.
Muybridge went home to Kingston and settled with members of his Muggeridge family. He still gave the lecture occasionally, and he published several books. Solnit is glad to tell us that Animals in Motion (1899) and The Human Figure in Motion (1901) ‘went through several printings each (they are in print still, and have sold steadily over the past half-century).’ He died of prostate cancer in 1904, and his tombstone bears the name spelled as ‘Maybridge’, a final change most likely not of his making.
When Solnit first went to Kingston in the course of her researches, she visited Muybridge’s birthplace, the house where his grandfather had sold sea-borne coal delivered by Thames barge and local grain brought into town on horse-drawn carts. She was delighted to find that it’s now a computer store: ‘that is to say, Muybridge’s English birthplace is now an outpost of Silicon Valley, where . . . the acceleration and dematerialisation of everyday life took a huge leap forward.’ ‘Muybridge’s birthplace so far away is now a shell stuffed with California.’ Her very last narrative condenses the whole transformation of the world between her hero’s birth in 1830 and today, concentrating on acceleration and dematerialisation in all aspects of life: Muybridge’s ‘grandfather had moved at a predictable pace through a world in which human beings and their voices and knowledge were no faster than the animals and water and wind that surrounded them. There are infinite ways to measure what has been gained and what has been lost. And only one clear thing; the world is utterly changed.’
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.