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The world as we know it today began in California in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. This extraordinary assertion is at the heart of Rebecca Solnit's brilliant new work of cultural history. Weaving together biography, history, and fascinating insights into art, technology, landscape, and philosophy, Solnit has created a boldly original portrait of America on the threshold of modernity. During a period of feverish creativity that commenced in 1872, Eadweard Muybridge succeeded for the first time in capturing and reanimating high-speed motion on film-the crucial breakthrough that made movies possible. He also continued his series of breathtaking photographs of the monumental landscape of the American West, served as official photographer of the grueling war against the Modoc Indians, and, in a blaze of publicity, stood trial for the murder of his wife's lover. In Solnit's taut, compelling narrative, Muybridge's life becomes a lens for a larger story about the transformation of time and space in the nineteenth century. With dazzling erudition and a rare mastery of the interlocking histories of art, technology, politics, and commerce, Solnit shows how the peculiar freedoms and opportunities of post-Civil War California led directly to the two industries-Hollywood and Silicon Valley-that have most powerfully defined the contemporary world. River of Shadowsis Solnit's most captivating book yet-wide- ranging in its allusions, daring in its connections, always surprising in its conclusions.
Rebecca Solnit, author of six highly praised works of nonfiction, including Secret Exhibition, Savage Dreams, and Hollow City, contributes essays about visual art, public space, landscape, and environmental issues to national magazines and museum exhibition catalogs.
Table of Contents
The Annihilation of Time and Space
The Man with the Cloudy Skies
Lessons of the Golden Spike
Standing on the Brink
A Day in the Life, Two Deaths, More Photographs
Skinning the City
The Artist in Motion and at Rest
From the Center of the World to the Final Frontier
Table of Contents provided by Syndetics. All Rights Reserved.
The Annihilation of Time and SpaceIn the spring of 1872 a man photographed a horse. The resulting photograph does not survive, but from this first encounter of a camera-bearing man with a fast-moving horse sprang a series of increasingly successful experiments that produced thousands of extant images. The photographs are well known, but they are most significant as the bridge to a new art that would transform the world. By the end of the 1870s, these experiments had led to the photographer's invention of the essentials of motion-picture technology. He had captured aspects of motion whose speed had made them as invisible as the moons of Jupiter before the telescope, and he had found a way to set them back in motion. It was as though he had grasped time itself, made it stand still, and then made it run again, over and over. Time was at his command as it had never been at anyone's before. A new world had opened up for science, for art, for entertainment, for consciousness, and an old world had retreated farther. The man was Edward James Muybridge of San Francisco, already renowned for his photographs of the West. In the eight years of his motion-study experiments in California, he also became a father, a murderer, and a widower, invented a clock, patented two photographic innovations, achieved international renown as an artist and a scientist, and completed four other major photographic projects. These other projects are also about time: about the seasonal and geological time of landscape, about the difference between the time that the camera sees and the eye sees, about a war between two societies with radically different beliefs about time and space, about the passage of a midsummer day's sunlight across a city in turmoil. The experience of time was itself changing dramatically during Muybridge's seventy-four years, hardly ever more dramatically than in the 1870s. In that decade the newly invented telephone and phonograph were added to photography, telegraphy, and the railroad as instruments for "annihilating time and space." The big corporations were spreading their grasp across wider spaces and into more subtle interstices of everyday life. The Indian wars were reaching their climax and their turning point. The modern world, the world we live in, began then, and Muybridge helped launch it. Muybridge produced more successful high-speed photographs than anyone had before. His 1878 camera shutters were a triumph of engineering that made reliable exposures of a fraction of a second for the first time, a speed at which extremely rapid motion could be captured in focus rather than recorded as blurs. The photographs were also a triumph of chemistry, which made the film "fast" enough to record so brief an instant. They froze motion so that the legs of a trotting or galloping horse, then a leaping man, and eventually the movements of lions, doves, dancing women, water spilling, artists drawing, could be depicted as a sequence of still images. At the same time, Muybridge improved upon the zootrope, a small device invented in 1834 that makes a series of spinning images seen through a slot appear to be a single image in motion. His zoopraxiscope, as he called it, projected versions of his motion studies on a screen: moving pictures, pictures of motion. It was the first time photographs had dissected and reanimated actual motion, and it was the foundation of cinema, which emerged tentatively in 1889, in full force in France and the United States by 1895. Motion pictures proper were invented by others, but no matter which way the medium's genealogy is traced, it comes straight back to Muybridge. And motion pictures changed the relationship to time farther; they made it possible to step in the same river twice, to see not just images but events that had happened in other times and other places, almost to stop living where you were and start living in other places or other times. Movies became a huge indu