THE COMPLEAT EADWEARD MUYBRIDGE: MOTION STUDIES


Rebecca Solnit, Motion Studies (London: Bloomsbury, 2003).

The cover bears the title:
Motion Studies. Time, Space and Eadweard Muybridge.

Title page:
Motion Studies. Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West.

The American edition is entitled:
River of Shadows. Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West. (USA: Viking, 2003)

Two different covers for the same book (a la Harry Potter) is not unknown. Three different titles for the same work seems less than helpful. An odd publishing decision.

Two good biographies were published in the 1970s. So what does this new book add to our knowledge of the man and his work? Well not too much, perhaps, in terms of hard new information. Instead, Rebecca Solnit puts Muybridge into the context of his time. In particular, she muses extensively on the speeding-up of the late Victorian world, and there is much about railroads and the 'annihilation of time and space'. There are bold claims for Muybridge's legacy: 'From Muybridge's invention came Hollywood' insists the jacket blurb: '...and from his patron Stanford's sponsorship of technological research came Silicon Valley'. In a sense, though no doubt both would have happened without Muybridge.

Solnit's analysis of Muybridge's landscape photography is very perceptive and helps to reinforce the growing reputation of this work, and her digressions on American Indians I found interesting.

One questionable use of terminology appears more than once. She writes of the 'triumph of chemistry, which made the film "fast" enough to record so brief an instant.' Of a running horse : 'Muybridge will seize hold of that running, stop it on film, take it apart and put it back together like a Chinese puzzle.' On photographing the racehorse Occident: 'If [the exposure] was too fast, the film would be underexposed.'

Perhaps it's unfair to point this out - Solnit clearly knows the technology of the period - but arguably it isn't unimportant. The use of the word 'film' in this context suggests a mindset that perhaps isn't quite 'back there' in the 1870s world of glass plate photography. Of course the emulsion was sometimes refered to as a 'film', but the phrases used by Solnit seem too modern. Even when used correctly the word is potentially ambiguous: not only is it used to refer to post-1880's rollfilm 'still' photography (a technology still used today), but 'film' also means - and Solnit herself frequently uses it to mean - 'the movies'. Of concern here is that to a modern general readership the use of the word 'film' when discussing glass plates subtly provides an unconscious reinforcement of the idea of Muybridge's famous action sequences as photographic moving pictures, screenable 'films' rather than printed sequence photographs. 'Photographic emulsion' would have been better. Muybridge himself fudged the truth in his account of the production of the Zoopraxiscope images, and this - together with many contemporary newspaper reports of 'the photographs in motion on the screen' - has understandably led to confusion. But the discs survive to be examined. They are painted images, in most cases meticulously traced from the photo sequences, and retaining the vitality of real-life humans and animals in motion. In our digitally manipulated world their production method actually adds to their interest: What constitutes a 'real' photograph?

Solnit suggests that as well as painted images, Muybridge projected actual photos with the Zoopraxiscope, because a sequence of small plates of a galloping horse, arranged in a circle, survives at Stanford. I would think that this could only have been produced for a private experiment; the photographs in question would have looked 'squashed' on the screen. The zoopraxiscope distorted images on projection - which is why painted images copied from photographs, but distorted to compensate for this 'squeezing' - were used.

Muybridge is a big subject, and only the brave take on the 'whole story' of his life and times. Solnit covers a range of Muybridge's activities in detail - including his stereoscopic and panoramic photography - though his later years are thinly sketched. Missing are the lecture 'tours' that he undertook in Britain and Europe.

Solnit's stream-of-consciousness technique works rather well in places, but in the final chapter reads almost as a parody of the style. The illustrations are well chosen.

Don't let the apparently negative comments in this review put you off. (As a Muybridge enthusiast myself, the smallest points of contention jump out at me, but will be less obvious to the general reader.) Rebecca Solnit's book is a deeply considered and thought-provoking account of the rushing, galloping world of the latter part of the nineteenth century. The author's embracing of the USA's geography, geology, economy, politics, media - and much else - during Muybridge's active life produces an engaging, if at times somewhat rambling, reverie.

Stephen Herbert

(an earlier version of this review appeared in the New Magic Lantern Journal).


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