I’ve just finished Rebecca Solnit’s River of Shadows, which takes as its rather unambitious thesis the argument that the key ideas underpinning the modern world originated in California in the 1870s. Talk about limiting your scope.
But seriously, this book is simply spectacular. It reads like a FAQ for understanding our time. More specifically, Solnit takes a couple of parameters that have become crucial to our world–time and speed (which, in conjunction produce another, efficiency)–and shows how our modern notions of these two things were shaped by the experiments that one photographer, Eadweard Muybridge, carried out in California.
Muybridge is probably best-known as the man who first proved conclusively that at some point during a horse’s gallop all four hooves are off the ground (before this was proven, the matter was a subject of some debate). In order to do this, he had to invent a way to record pictures utilizing shutter speeds of 1/1000 of a second. In an age where most photographers used exposures in the minutes, this was no small task.
Muybridge eventually partnered with Leland Stanford, who had made his fortune off the railroad. With Stanford’s resources–money, assistants, racehorses to photograph and a private track in which to photograph them–Muybridge was able to devise a camera and take his groundbreaking photographs.
Solnit does an incredible job of reading this story for all it’s worth. She keys in on how Stanford’s railroad (he built the western half of the transcontinental railroad and hammered the Golden Spike) was the crucial step in ushering in the hegemony of clocks. Before the advent of the railroad, time was something poorly measured and little regarded. When people asked what time it was, just telling them the hour was good enough. Schedules as we now know them did not exist.
Railroads changed all that. They were key to industrialization and their arrivals and departures forced cities to keep to precise schedules (this necessitated the creation of time zones to ensure that each part of America was on the same time). Railroads also destroyed barriers of distance as the pre-modern world had known them and created a greater degree of interdependence that ever before imagined. Goods, and people, could be shipped cross-country. A trip from new York to San Francisco, which took months before the railroad, now took days.
In a similar way, photography broke down old barriers. Photography meant that history was no longer transient; it could be preserved in a photo and looked to again and again. Photography also allowed images of distant places to be quickly disseminated. Even poor people, who often never left their home village, could see faraway events and places. Portraits, previously the realm of the wealthy, could be had by most families. The camera changed cultures.
In Solnit’s words (words that were commonly uttered in the 19th century) these two technologies were among the first and the most potent to "annihilate time and space."
The intersection of the lives of Stanford and Muybridge brought together the camera’s capacity to record and the railroad’s capacity for speed and produced a revolution. Muybridge’s successful studies of horses, deer, birds, humans, and many other creatures in action, rendered the invisible visible. For the very first time, humans could see what had always been too quick for the eye. Not only that, but Muybridge’s cameras spawned motion pictures and the era of image reproduction, setting the stage for two of the fundamental realities of the modern world.
In River of Shadows, Solnit elaborates, in great detail, on the argument I have just sketched out. She provides careful research and an almost omnipotent critical eye to flesh out every nuance of how the ideas of speed and time were transformed by Muybridge and Stanford, and how these ideas have shaped the world we live in. Solnit also provides a satisfying biographical sketch of the life of Muybridge. This includes an examination of how the West, a fluid place where self-invention and impermanence were the rule, helped make Muybridge’s life, and by extension the creation of our world, possible.
For anyone who is interested in understanding the world we live in, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Almost every page rings with insight into contemporary America, and many of the trends Solnit highlights from Muybridge’s time have parallels in our own society. It is a book that will literally make you re-think your conception of the modern world.
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