The birth of the modern world

Me holding River of Shadows
Rebecca Solnit – River of Shadows

There was a time when men could travel only as fast as a horse could run. A time when most grew up, lived, and died within a few miles of their birthplace. When they made a living strictly by use of their own hands. A time when every town kept its own local time, by the position of the sun. When the American West was a vast natural expanse, its features held sacred by its native inhabitants. A time when the concept of capturing and freezing an image, a hint of the past, was an incomprehensible phenomenon.

This time, one forgets, is shockingly recent. The railroad, photography, the telegraph, and many more “old” technologies that modernity is built on date only to the mid-19th century.

It was into this “pre-modern” world that Edward Muggeridge was born in a tiny English village. He died, in the early 20th century, in an utterly remade world, in whose transformation he played an important part.

Eadweard Muybridge (as he’d christen himself) left England as a young man, in search of adventure. His destination? San Francisco, gold rush times. Safe to say he found all the adventure he could want.

River of Shadows traces Muybridge’s life in the West alongside the powerful trends and developments creating what Baudelaire termed “modernity”: the Transcontinental Railroad, the Indian Wars, photography, telegraphy, industrialism, corporatism. Solnit explains how the culture of the Wild West gave people the freedom to reinvent themselves and invent incredible technology.

Her case study is Muybridge, whose work helped set the foundation for the invention of cinema; his story is the centerpiece of the book, but this is not just a biography. Solnit’s achievement is that she has shown, on a smaller scale, how cinema developed through a series of specific events, simultaneously delineated the factors that, on a large scale, made California into the home base for both the movie and tech industries, and highlighted the interplay between the micro and macro storylines. Without making the reader’s head spin.

So how does this Muybridge factor in? As he progressed from novice landscape photographer to experienced innovator, he set his sights on the greatest, most prized advance yet to be achieved by his field: instantaneous photography. To date, it was impossible to capture an object in rapid motion using the existing technology—shutter speeds were too slow and the plates took too long to make an exposure.

This meant that the very essence of motion was often inaccessible, which led to a quixotic debate. The point in contention was whether a horse, when trotting, always keeps at least one hoof on the ground. Those who argued the contrary had no way to prove their point. One such person was the railroad tycoon Leland Stanford, who, casting about for something to do with his ludicrous profits, had assembled a massive stable of thoroughbreds on his Palo Alto ranch.

Thus the genesis of cinema began with an inauspicious proposal. Stanford approached Muybridge, hoping the latter could make a photograph of one of his horses mid-trot, settling the question for good.

Muybridge's photos of Leland Stanford's horse, Occident, showing the horse with all four hooves off the ground
Muybridge ends the debate

Settle it Muybridge did, and much more. Over the next five years, Muybridge developed a system that allowed him to photograph a horse at full gallop, in sequence, the result being a series of images that froze the animal at successive positions. These images were the first of their kind, a leap forward for photography with wide repercussions. (Among other things, it caused a revolution among painters of the day, who realized they’d been painting their galloping horses all wrong.)

But Muybridge didn’t stop there.

He also hooked up his motion study photos to a gadget called a zoetrope, which was like a large drum with images pasted around the outside, so that when it was rotated, the images would appear to be continuous—like the flipbook effect. Then he incorporated the “magic lantern” technique, which was a way to project images from glass-plates onto a solid surface—the ancestor of the projector.

Muybridge called his new invention the zoopraxiscope. It was the first real step toward cinema.

A great milestone, for sure. But the advent of photography and cinema also marked the start of an age in which humans increasingly paid attention to the representations of forms rather than the forms themselves. Or, put more colloquially, we were losing touch with nature.

Rebecca Solnit writes with exquisite imagery and detail. She chronicles the myriad of shifts and evolutions that birthed the modern world, and weaves them together seamlessly, like a fine tapestry. Her comparisons and metaphors allowed me to glimpse, in some small way, what it was like to live in a period of unrelenting perceptual change. Suddenly, humans traveled at 50 miles per hour across tremendous distances, and broadcasted events as they happened from coast to coast.

Solnit intuitively understands, and conveys in clear language, how these incredible upheavals changed society, and more importantly, changed the way people experienced the world.

It’s impossible for me to do justice to the breathtaking scope and beauty of this work. So please, read it for yourself!