Book Review

Frontier Modernism


Rebecca Solnit’s River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West addresses the life, work, and cultural moment of the late 19th-century photographer who pioneered fast photographic exposures, isolated unfamiliar poses of motion in humans and animals, and later reanimated them with proto-cinematographic devices. Her work differs from other studies of Muybridge in her focus on his collaboration with robber baron and university founder Leland Stanford in producing the motion studies. Although California’s film industry developed independent of Muybridge’s influence, Silicon Valley developed partly as an offshoot of Stanford University; Solnit sees the liaison between these two men as a beacon of California’s future. River of Shadows draws out the connections between the West’s cultural and political histories, looking for hints of its present prominence in technological and cultural production. In a sense, this book is a cross-pollenization of Solnit’s earlier study of the political architecture of San Francisco (Hollow City) and her monographs of Western artists (including Richard Misrach, Eliot Porter, J. John Priola, and Linda Connor).

Muybridge himself is something of an odd choice–unless the author has chosen him specifically so that he can be absent as an individual. She provides no incisive information about the motivation of either Muybridge or Leland to undertake motion studies. She tells us that there is insufficient archival material to bring Muybridge to life. The book primarily relies on his photographs and successive name changes as it follows Muybridge, né Muggeridge, from England to America, on trips through Central America and Europe, and, in his final years, back to England. The most palpable suggestion Solnit makes about him is that an 1860 stagecoach accident may have damaged his frontal lobe, making him a more daring artist and a potentially violent person. Even the biographical facts that emerge from his infamous trial are still insufficient to provide much insight into his personality and motivation. (Muybridge was accused of murdering his wife’s lover; several character witnesses tried to persuade the jury that he was not guilty by reason of insanity.) Nevertheless, although Muybridge is conspicuously absent as a real person in River of Shadows, the combination of a stagecoach accident, a murder trial, and three name changes make him work as a Western archetype.

Solnit offers Muybridge as a kind of case study in intrepidness and technological innovation, which, she implies, are essential characteristics of the West itself. Unlike other Muybridge critics, she argues for the importance of his earlier work. She describes how his images of Yosemite, shot from precarious vantage points, convey more turbulence and natural power than the more famous images of Carleton Watkins. She also writes eloquently of Muybridge’s early fascination with brooding cloudy skies, which led him to print clouds onto his landscapes and, later, to create a dual shutter to capture both simultaneously. The book also reproduces many of his images, showing the progression from images of Stanford’s trotting horse Occident that were so underexposed that viewers had difficulty believing that they were photographs, to later pictures in which light glints off the running horse’s shoulder. Although her attention to his photographs sometimes slips into mere description, Solnit’s informed account of the technology Muybridge employed throughout his career–from daring angles and darkroom techniques to specialized shutters and tripwires–makes her contribution substantial.

Solnit lets Muybridge serve as a lens onto the modernization of the American West and the increasing fascination with representing what was being lost–through Wild West shows, photographs, and ultimately cinema. Modernism is nothing if not the new forms of representation that developed to accommodate the shifts in perception brought by industrialization. At heart, River of Shadows is a study of modernism. It is particularly fascinating because it tackles the subject from the periphery–not just the New World, but the frontier. For example, Solnit contends that with the coming of the railroad, “it was as though” both landscape and the Native Americans who inhabited it “were being kicked out of the real world, but invited into art and entertainment, into dime novels, Wild West circuses, paintings, and photographs.” Tackling modernism from the perspective of the frontier allows Solnit to move seamlessly between mass cultural forms, like dime novels, and high art forms, like painting. The lack of distinction between high and mass culture in frontier modernism reflects photography’s straddling of that boundary better than more familiar European high-cultural approaches to modernism.

We get another compelling glimpse of frontier modernity when Solnit describes Leland Stanford driving the Golden Spike to complete the transcontinental railroad, an event that was “simulcast” by telegraph. This coverage established the event as one of importance to all Americans, even though it took place at radically different times in radically distant, and different, cities: 12:45 local time at Promontory Point, Utah, 1:53 in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and 2:47 in Washington, D.C. (Uniform time zones had not yet been adopted. Standardized time, one of the many violent globalizing abstractions of modernity imposed by the railroad and its superhuman schedules, would initially be known as Railroad Time before it became Greenwich Time.) At a time when the Eastern and Western parts of the country were two different worlds, the abstraction of standardized time and the supposedly national event at Promontory Point allowed Americans to think of themselves as belonging to a single group. The psychological distance between East and West was further diminished when Muybridge and Watkins’ photographs of iconic Western landscapes like Yosemite were sent east. Meanwhile, the mechanization of time was a necessary precursor to photographers’ use of exposure times of fractions of a second, which allowed photography to progress beyond landscape.

Solnit builds on this kind of metaphorical convergence, which lends the book its passion. Her lyrical writing allows the importance of an event of historical proportion, like driving the last spike of the transcontinental railroad, to reverberate. She evocatively describes the army’s attempt to “annihilate the buffalo [and] sabotage the nomadic hunting way life of the Plains Indians” to safeguard the railroads. The slaughter of the buffalo also fueled the further industrialization of the United States. “The unromantic destiny of most of [their] hides was factories,” she writes. “Before rubberized drive belts, the belts that drove the Industrial Revolution’s factories were made of leather, and buffalo hide was thick and durable.” The metaphor comes full circle because the hides were, of course, transported by rail. Solnit’s lyricism reveals the author’s profound understanding of the connectedness of different histories. It echoes the massive changes, both physical and psychical, that modernization brought, even as seen from one corner of one part of the world.

Occasionally her metaphors are more lyrical than they need to be: They sometimes offer a poor alibi for scant information. Solnit would do better to come clean about why there is so little information about Muybridge and why she has chosen to try to say something about him anyway. Her poeticizing seems particularly clumsy when she tries to describe Native American resistance. She has little to add about the way Native American groups experienced the march toward modernity and reverts to heavy-handed poeticism. She writes, for instance: “With their guns and horses, the Modoc [of California] had already embraced the accelerations brought from Europe; what they were not ready for was the concomitant detachment from ritual time and intimate space that came as part of the package. The part they accepted made it easier for them to resist the rest–that is, they could fight with the guns and the horses.” Her efforts to poeticize the Modoc yield little new historical information in a tangle of cumbersome prose. As a friend of mine said when he read a draft of this review, lyricism without proportion is sentimentality–and we have plenty of that already when it comes to both Native Americans and the narrative of American progress.

Solnit’s ultimate claim–that artistic and technological innovation, specifically cinema and Silicon Valley, are the natural byproducts of the Wild West’s modernization–is engaging, but never fully developed. What she does manage to accomplish is to show us how the West–as microcosm of “the West” in its other sense–underwent vast, interconnected changes in the last third of the 19th century. River of Shadows brings to life shifts in the way people think, which makes it well worth the read.

Cameron Scott teaches Spanish at the University of Texas at Austin.