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The Father of the Moving Image
on February 24, 2003
Everyone knows about the inventions of such men as Edison and Marconi, the sorts of inventions that truly brought us to the modern age. It sounds like a stretch to claim that the man who definitively answered the question of whether a trotting horse ever completely leaves the ground also changed the world. However, Rebecca Solnit has written an original biography of the photographer Eadweard Muybridge, _River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West_ (Viking) which centers on how Muybridge, by splitting motion into split-second bits, changed the nature of our perception of time and space in a way that brought us inevitably to Hollywood and to Silicon Valley. She writes, "Muybridge was a doorway, a pivot between that old world and ours, and to follow him is to follow the choices that got us here." As biography, the book is inevitably thin. Muybridge kept no journals and there are few letters, and details about his remarkable life are hard to come by; the basics, of course, are here. Solnit says, "Most of what is known about Muybridge makes him seem a hollow conduit for his work, with only a few vain remarks to personalize the prodigal accomplishments." Rather than biography, as a series of essays on the importance of his work, the book is original and fun.
Muybridge's life and work are inextricably bound with the brand-new state of California, but he was born in 1830 over a family shop in England, in Kingston-upon-Thames. He lit out for San Francisco, where he worked as a bookseller. He made a name for himself in photography, however, which was a relatively new and demanding art. He was among the first to photograph the wilderness of Yosemite, using huge plates for images that are still dramatic. Muybridge stepped into fame with a commission from Leland Stanford, one of the famous robber barons who had made his fortune on the railways. Stanford had a hobby of raising race horses and he wanted to do it all as scientifically as possible. Some horsemen maintained that trotting horses always had at least one foot on the ground, while Stanford maintained that the horse became airborne in each stride; neither side had any way to demonstrate its position, for although one could stare at trotting horses eternally, the motion was simply too fast to make out. There is a legend that Stanford had a big bet on the issue, but Stanford was not a betting man, only one who wanted to raise and race horses scientifically. Muybridge had already had a commission to photograph Stanford's house and properties, and was asked to consider the problem of the trotting horse. Muybridge was instrumental in technological breakthroughs to make the famous series of photos happen, involving film and shutter speed, as well as the development of a way to trigger a set of cameras at just the right time. Solving the technology was only a minor part of his contribution; he went on to run the photographs together so that they became a loop of action, the forebear of the movies. Muybridge's work was so startling that it was denounced .... and cartoon parodies were printed showing a horse's legs in "authentic" wildly impossible positions. His subsequent studies of other animals and humans in motion are still in print, still a vital resource for artists.
Solnit has used the life of Muybridge to gather information on widely dispersed subjects that she ties into the biography with wonderful facility. Wyatt Earp, Mary Pickford, and Thomas Edison are all here. There are digressions about the invention of the time zones, the resettlement and slaughter of the Indians, Hewlitt-Packard, and much more. Solnit's wide-ranging account makes it feasible that Muybridge was the father of the moving image, and that from his work descends the age of images in film, television, and internet.