This review appeared in the Sunday Times on 9 February 2003
Rebecca Solnit, Motion Studies: Time, Space and Eadweard Muybridge, Bloomsbury, £16.99, pp. 305
One evening in Paris in 1895, during the earliest days of motion pictures, the Lumière brothers screened a short film they had made of a group of workmen knocking down a wall. At the moment the wall lay completely flattened the film went into surprising reverse, with the bricks and mortar rising back into place, and the film ending with the men stepping backwards out of the frame, away from the wall that now stood before them, magically reassembled from the rubble. It was the most brilliant demonstration that had yet been made of the strange new technology to which the Lumière brothers would go on to give the name “cinema”.
Yet the origins of cinema, as Rebecca Solnit argues in this thoughtful and fascinating book, were rooted more in the need to understand the nature of vision than in the simple desire to trick the eye. Cinema began as a scientific enterprise, as an enquiry into the world in motion, and the pioneering work of Eadweard Muybridge, an English photographer who began his working life in California in the 1860s, exemplifies the seriousness with which that enterprise was pursued. His story, which Rebecca Solnit tells with flair and feeling, is extraordinary in itself, yet it is also the story of the growth of an industry, and the way that it went on to change the fortunes of southern California, allowing it to shed its gold-rush image and transform itself into the centre of the modern world through the products of Hollywood and Silicon Valley.
Muybridge, born Edward Muggeridge in Kingston-upon-Thames in 1830, emigrated to San Francisco in his early twenties and worked as a bookseller for nearly ten years before going into business as a landscape photographer under the assumed name of Edward Muybridge (the further change to the old-English Eadweard came later in his life). He was a highly successful photographer and some of his early stereoscopic views of clouds, of glaciers, and of waterfalls in the Yosemite Valley, are beautifully composed, and testify to the impact that the landscape of the American West was having upon the European settlers. Other photographs, however, of the Modoc Indian wars and the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad, testify to the impact that the settlers themselves were having upon the landscape and the peoples of the American West.
Yet it was the land-grabbing railroad tycoon Leland Stanford who was to provide Muybridge with the means to conduct his enquiries into the nature of motion. By the early 1870s Stanford was a multi-millionaire and a keen collector and racer of horses. He hired Muybridge in 1872 in order to provide the answer to a very specific question that had arisen during an argument with a trainer: is there ever a moment when all four hooves of a trotting horse are simultaneously off the ground? Answering that question, as Solnit points out, not only gave the world the new technology of instantaneous photography, but it also changed the way that photography itself was seen. In reducing the exposure-time needed from long still minutes to less than a thousandth of a second, Muybridge saw photography change its tense from the past into the present. “The bustling nineteenth century had to come to a halt for the camera,” she writes, “until Muybridge and his motion studies.”
Solnit manages the difficult task of turning the technical details of Muybridge’s experiments at the Palo Alto racetrack into an absorbing but never an overwhelming account, while her portraits of the characters involved in the episode are wonderfully drawn. Stanford, the seventh-richest man in the United States, and who, according to Solnit, resembled “a badly taxidermized badger,” stalks the narrative like the argumentative robber baron that he was, while Muybridge, with his name changes, his personal torments and his astonishing capacity for work, is presented as a haunted and slightly tragic figure. There was an American music hall song, popular in the mid-nineteenth century, that could have been written especially for him: “Oh, what was your name in the States? Was it Thompson, or Johnson, or Bates? Did you murder your wife and fly for your life? Say, what was your name in the States?” Muybridge/Muggeridge didn’t murder his wife, but he did murder his wife’s lover, calmly hunting him down and shooting him dead before giving himself up to the law. Muybridge’s trial was a sensation, with standing-room only in the court-house. The defence counsel submitted a plea of insanity, and Muybridge was acquitted of first-degree murder by a sympathetic jury of twelve married men who, it was suggested afterwards in the press, agreed that they would have reacted in much the same way had it been them.
After the trial Muybridge occupied himself with renewed motion studies, producing what are now iconic sequences of running deer, birds in flight, and athletes turning somersaults. But it is the sequences that he made of himself, walking, running, ascending a stair, that stand out from the rest. Endless Muybridges pass before the viewer, bearded, nude and calmly indifferent to the bank of cameras that he had aimed at himself, silently recording his every move.