Friday, October 28th, 2011
River of Shadows: Edweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West is a photography history journey through the mid-to-late 1800s American West. It is made all the more compelling because it takes an exceptionally interesting character, Muybridge, and places his work and that of other famous artists and inventors and melds it all into a broad historical context. The wild west that was… and the wild west that people believed in.
The underlying premise of Solnit’s journey is the role photography played – along with the railroads and telegraphy – in breaking down the human perception of space and time. In a relatively short space in history people could move vast distances watching panoramas unfold through train windows; they could send a message almost instantaneously over vast distances; and, they could capture time and space in a photograph.
This shift in perception and possibilities can’t be over-emphasised in that before photography the average person had no way of knowing what their forebears looked like – only the rich had paintings to record their image. Suddenly, in the grasp of many, the portrait appeared and the landscape extended the vision of human possibility.
Muybridge’s most famous contribution to photography was an extensive series of ground-breaking motion studies created using the wet-plate collodion process. This can be said to provide the first step toward cinema. But what I found more fascinating than the discovery was the context of the west itself – the Ghost Dance, the Modoc wars, Sitting Bull stopping in battle to calmly smoke a pipe with comrades amid the gunfire, the turbulent history of San Fransisco and its ability to nurture self-reinvention, the back-story of Yosemite and the irrevocable greed of the big four robber barons.
And Muybride was an interesting man in his own right. He was an artist, an inventor, an entrepreneur, a murderer found not guilty against the directions of a trial judge (and should have probably been hung) – and he was a driven perfectionist. He was constantly pushing the new medium of photography into new directions and working at improving it’s technologies to reach those goals.
I couldn’t recommend Rebecca Solnit’s book more highly. It was a compelling read with the historic depth of character to bring everything to life in its own manipulation of space and time. I’d call this one a must-read for photographers and history buffs alike.