Top positive review
Interesting backstories for two important people
on June 8, 2016
Historians might argue about whether Eadweard Muybridge was the key figure in the invention of motion pictures—let alone our entire modern, media-obsessed culture—as Ball claims, but he certainly was a key figure, since his sequential photos of running horses, made with a camera setup of his own invention and projected onto a screen for the first time in 1880, were (Ball says) the first moving pictures ever shown in this way. Leland Stanford, in whose home that screen was located, was Muybridge’s patron for a while (Muybridge made the horse photos at Stanford’s request) and certainly played a central, if not necessarily beloved, part in the development of American railroads and industry, not to mention founding a major university. Stanford, of course, is well known, and Muybridge is relatively so, at least to anyone who has studied photography, but this book brings out interesting facts about both men that may not be familiar to many readers; at least, they were new to me.
The most startling fact, of which the book makes much, is that Muybridge cold-bloodedly killed a man—and got away with it. Don’t expect a mystery, though; Muybridge not only admitted but bragged about the crime. His motive, too, was no secret: the man he killed was his wife’s lover. The law did not hold that that was a justifiable motive for murder, but the jury at his trial (all male, as all juries were in those days) disagreed. Other details are less titillating but just as interesting, such as the fact that Muybridge was well known as a photographer of Yosemite and other scenic spots before he became involved in making movies. (He also changed the spelling of his name just about every time he changed careers, which was every ten years or so.) The book tells somewhat less about Stanford, but I learned, for instance, that he and his fellow railroad barons had started out as small merchants in Sacramento; Stanford ran a grocery store.
I had mixed feelings about Ball’s jumping back and forth in time from one chapter to the next, which I assume he did in order to keep up reader interest given that, inevitably, some parts of the two men’s lives were more exciting than others. He tells about the murder and the development of Muybridge’s motion-picture experiments in fits and starts, interspersed with information about Muybridge’s and Stanford’s background and later careers. The choice was an understandable one, but at times it was frustrating and a little confusing.
Overall, though, I enjoyed the book, and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in the history of photography or film or who simply wants to learn more about two eccentric and fascinating men whose partnership, though relatively brief, had a major impact on the way people experience the world. As Ball writes, “Movies hold the world in a perpetual present, bringing dead time (and the dead themselves) back to life…. Muybridge made possible the rescue of any length of past, restoring it to the here and now.”