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River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West
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40 of 42 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
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.
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on August 8, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Rebecca Solnit has created a provocative masterpiece! This is not a simple biography about one of the great innovators of the field of photography. It is a richly, intellectually layered work that explores the big ideas of time and our relationship to it; the fusion of politics, science and industry in the 19th century; and links today's Silicon West to what we call the Wild West of our past. She possesses exceptional writing skills. This is book well worth reading by those seeking inspiration to invent the future, or for those who wish insight into the concept of progress.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on May 10, 2004
Format: Paperback
Like many people, I had seen Muybridge's motion studies before, but had never considered the man behind the pictures. Solnit presents a compelling portrait of a man who is at the same time probably certifiably nuts, a genius years ahead of his time, a lousy husband and father, and a murderer. As Solnit points out, his groundbreaking work was really the basis for motion pictures and much of other technology we take for granted today.
I took this book with me on an overnight flight to Brazil and compulsively read it cover to cover while I should have been sleeping.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on May 1, 2004
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
I wasn't especially interested in Muybridge, but this book is a good deal more than that. Though not stinting on detail, Solnit's writing and intellectual abilities provide a grasp of the transformations of time and space that occurred in the past century and a half; she addresses, and conquers, the challenges of making another age vivid and profound as has no book I've yet encountered. "She writes like an angel," one critic said, and it's quite true; through her supple and sensitive prose she reflects on Muybridge's life and times, examining them from every angle, and in so doing gives a clinic in how history of any kind may be most richly approached.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
Certainly much more than a biography, this book on Muybridge is full of other subjects. Solnit angle on time is quite special, as it comes back again and again. We tend to forget how everythig has thoroughly changed since the victorian era. This book confronts our acquired attitudes and what we take for granted today.

It is always a surprise and an experience to read on a subject and find much more on the way.

This book is a mind expander.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon June 11, 2007
Format: Paperback
Rebecca Solnit is an amazing writer. She brings to the surface all the hidden currents of the Muybridge story in a narrative that is at once informative and moving. This book constantly surprised and delighted me with its deep insights and fascinating details. Not only is it well researched, but the results of the research are germane to the story and are all neatly brought together. It was a pleasure to discover that fine writing like this still exists. I can't wait to read her other books now that I have found her.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on May 31, 2006
Format: Paperback
Solnit has some interesting things to say about Muybridge's photography, and about how photography, our self image as a society, and even California's culture of rebirth, innovation, and redemption are tied up. But even apart from such heady stuff, Muybridge was a rascal who lived an interesting life (besides his photography, he murdered his wife's lover and invented the technology that is the basis for movies). So read this book, you'll enjoy it, and maybe learn a bit too.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon January 9, 2007
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
Few authors have tied together the many facets of the post civil war, pre-modern West as well as Rebecca Solnit. Her literary vehicle is a man as strange as his name, Eadweard Muybridge. Of course you can also read this book to learn about the early days of photography and the technology which preceeds motion pictures. For either reason this is an excellent biography and will serve the inteerests of many readers.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on March 2, 2007
Format: Paperback
Muybridge was an interesting character aside from his pioneering landscape photography and motion studies. Rebecca Solnit is an interesting character aside from her accessibility and easy readable style. She is uncommonly skilled in describing her subject and what he did as well as explaining the historical context and landscape into which Muybridge inserted himself.

Gold rush California was a wild and raw landscape, filled with the last gasps of the American frontier as the Sierra was trampled by the world's riffraff. Muybridge dragged his huge camera into the mountains capturing images of Yosemite from perspectives many of us with much lighter cameras and easier trails wouldn't dream of attempting.

While Solnit makes a reasonable case for Muybridge's pioneering technology work in pre-motion pictures as well as still photography, she misses the continuing photographic California thread down the road from Leland Stanford's Palo Alto ranch, where Silicon Valley turned the telephoto lens around and photographically shrank designs onto silicon wafers. A minor point.

Nevertheless, this book, like her Savage Dreams, is an exquisite bit of California and photographic history. Anyone with an interest in Yosemite, landscape and nature photography should have this on their bookshelf!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on March 26, 2007
Format: Paperback
This is a splendid book, intelligent,stimulating, the best kind of cultural history. It illuminates the origins of photography, cinema, and the construction of the American west.
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