Here is what Rebecca Solnit is up to with Motion Studies (as was titled the British edition I read; it’s published as River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West in the U.S.): She centers Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904), the man whose groundbreaking photographs of a fast-moving horse revolutionized scientific and artistic ideas of motion, in a larger study of late-nineteenth century transformations of time and space. From railroads to cinema to the wars between the U.S. and American Indians to cityscapes to telegraph innovations to scandal, Solnit’s particular point of curiosity is the upheaval of human perception -- and, more particularly, the willful upheaval of it.
Muybridge’s high-speed photograph of a trotting horse, made for Leland Stanford in 1872, proved what had never been known before: that all four of a horse’s feet did indeed leave the ground at once. As paintings of that era and before indicate, many people -- including very serious observers -- didn’t believe this was possible. Relatedly, some years later, Muybridge shattered the widely-held notion about horses when he proved that the ‘flying gallop’ -- or two symmetrical pairs of hoofs spanning the air mid-stride -- did not actually exist.
Muybridge, he of numerous eccentric name-spellings, is evocative for Solnit, not only because of his breakthrough motion studies (as well as his extensive landscape photography, the first of its kind), but because he embodies so much of the California landscape (and it is this landscape that is truly the protagonist of the book). Muybridge is a British man who traveled to San Francisco and numerous times canceled out his past in order to re-make himself. His photographic studies of animals and humans in motion straddled the worlds of art, science, and entertainment -- and this in the same landscape that birthed both Hollywood and Silicon Valley. And the outsized genius of Muybridge, who once signed his photographs as “Helios” and whose work was the first step towards the invention of cinema, is paired with the plain fact of him being a murderer.
I would be interested in this book if it focused solely on the “annihilation of time and space” that hooked so much public and professional attention in the late-nineteenth century, but certainly Muybridge’s life and work is a compelling way to orient this story. And Solnit, as a thinker with broad interests and unabashed fascination in her subject, seems primed to be the perfect guide.
But the wealth of intriguing material here is, unfortunately, diluted into a pile of anecdotes linked more by association than anything else. Despite the subtitle of my edition of the book, neither time, space, nor Eadweard Muybridge are the consistent threads that serve as a through-line for this book. And for a book wrestling with such big topics as ‘time’ and ‘space’ in 250 pages, that through-line was desperately needed.
Solnit indulges tangents that are totally off-scale for this particularly project. There is, for example, an extensive section on the Modoc wars and the tribe’s last stand against the U.S. government. It is a fascinating story, and I credit Solnit for not following a pattern of segregating history relating to Native Americans to only the ‘Native American history’ genre. Rather, she is eager to integrate histories in this book, to point to and sit with intersections of narratives that don’t fit easy genre distinctions.
But. The Modoc war section takes up fully ten percent of this short book. And despite the lyrical musing that Solnit tries to use to hook it all together, really the only connection here is that Muybridge did a big photographic series of the Modoc war for the U.S. government. He spent only about a year of his life with this project. Solnit clearly was just plain interested in the Modoc wars and how it shaped, informed, and revealed the Western landscape and ‘the West.’ Who can fault her? That’s interesting stuff. But it belongs, at least at this level of depth, in a different book.
While that’s the most apparent example of the book’s tendency to look every which way, undercutting its own narrative even as it discusses the founding of cinematic narrative, it is not the only one. The text likewise lingers on asides about Leland Stanford, Muybridge’s patron for the initial motion studies. We follow anecdotes about his involvement in politics, railroads, and the university that bears his name. We witness strange stories about his family life -- like how the climax of a lavish dinner party hosted by Stanford was when, intended as a delightful and amusing surprise, his infant son was placed on a covered platter that was served to his wife.
Weirdly for a book about the changing experiences of time and pace, Solnit’s digressions serve to make the movement of this book uneasy, and at times illogical. While she uses narrative control on the pace of the book by dividing it into multiple short sections -- titled mini-chapters within the chapters -- this often created more confusion. In a mini-chapter titled ‘Chicago,’ and dated with the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition spends a third of its five pages discussing how and why Leland Stanford founded a university near San Francisco. It concludes with a paragraph that finds Stanford and the college’s first president effusively reveling in how great California is. How did we get here from the Columbian Exposition way back in the Midwest? I have no idea.
For all the un-honed context of the book, there are curious blank spots. One is that Solnit, early on and throughout the text, affirms the worth of her focus on Muybridge by his influence on the invention of cinema. But she does very little examination of what, really, that means; the text satisfies itself with pat summations. At one point, she writes that, “without him there would have been no movies,” which is patently unbelievable. As Solnit herself describes elsewhere in the book, others were actively working on how to find the intersection of speed and photography; Muybridge’s accomplishment is that his motion studies were first and better than anyone else’s -- and, of course, he influenced his counterparts who continued to make further innovations in the medium. Without Muybridge, certainly cinema would’ve been invented. Its origin story would simply have been a different one.
This tendency to over-simplify is likewise evident in the very last sentence of the book. Referring to the direct and indirect legacy of Muybridge, Solnit repeats a refrain that explicitly appears throughout the book as a sort of base argument for its own story. She concludes: “There are infinite ways to measure what has been gained and what has been lost, and only one clear thing: the world is utterly changed.” Well, then. Indeed. Some things happened, and therefore things have been changed. To my ears, this is an easy way out; a slippery escape from the complications and intersections that Solnit opened up in the preceding text.
The other curious gap is that there is no mention at all of comics. Comics is basically defined as “sequential art,” typically manifested as a “strip.” They saw their rise in popularity at just about the same time that Muybridge was creating motion studies that relied on a narrative sequence created by the juxtaposition of panels. The parallels here are close enough that I was actually surprised that there wasn’t even aside -- among all the asides -- in this book, particularly given her attention to Muybridge’s influence on painters and other visual artists. The idea that this was an unwise erasure nags at me.
Motion Studies brims with interesting tales and curious trivia, with intriguing speculation and -- spread generously across the pages -- truly amazing photography. For plenty of readers who are willing to settle in for this ride as you would with a loquacious half-drunk seatmate on a train, this book will be a nice ride. For me, though, it was a maddening text, one that feels unfinished and that mistakes breadth for depth.