Bought a gun, found the man

Anne Hollander

  • Motion Studies: Time, Space and Eadweard Muybridge by Rebecca Solnit
    Bloomsbury, 305 pp, £16.99, February 2003, ISBN 0 7475 6220 2

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.

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