River of Shadows – Rebecca Solnit


River of Shadows - Rebecca Solnit-RebeccaI don’t normally talk about the books that I read, one because I take ages to read a book being busy with watch films and making work. However The River of Shadows: Eaweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West by Rebecca Solnit has really caught my attention. The biography of the photographer Eaweard Muybridge set against the backdrop of the development of the technological world from the first time Muybridge first stepped onto American soil to the civil war, and the revolutionary work in motion studies with Leland Stanford which was a crucial element that lead to the invention of film and ultimately the moving image and cinema. Sadly not being recognised until long after his death for his achievements. I came to this book with more of a fascination for his earlier work which is evident in my own. I knew of the motion studies but paid little attention to them. After reading about them, the lengths he went to and the trials he went to. He truly was a revolutionary artist for his time, pushing technology forward, which is one of the main themes of the book which talks about the laying of the rail-road throughout America, linking east and west, the great rail-road barons who made millions from laying down track. Which allowed Muybridge to travel across the country, taking more photos, through commissions and more. The life of Muybridge also allows us to see America and the industrial world boom. Taking in almost a century of history from the point of view of his life. Written with such passion and beauty, you don’t feel you are getting a history lesson, they are more like side notes that accompany the book enriching it with great historical texture.

I was quite struck by Solnits observations of the Modoc Warsin particular the ghost dance that was suppost to invoke the dead to come back to life. Sadly it never worked for the warring tribe fighting being penned into the life of reservations.

” In other words, cinema would itself be a kind of Ghost Dance. It was and is a breach in the wall between the past and the present, one that lets the dead return albeit as images of flickering light rather than phantoms in the dark or armies marching across the land. Anyone who watches old movies watches the dead, and [Thomas] Edison was not yet insulated as we are against what is as macabre about this.  In the first years of cinema, the Lumiere brothers made a short film about a few men knocking down a wall and then in reverse so that the men walked backwards and the wall arose from its own rubble. For audiences then, it was deeply disturbing and more than a little magical. They were not used to time as a toy in men’s hands. The Ghost Dance itself was in effort to make time run backward like a film, so the white vanish, the game reappeared, even death reversed itself.”

pg 115-6

I was quite taken aback by this passage, thinking about how I could possibly respond to such a piece of text. In a sense Was There Ever…? (2013) does that in the form of text, bring back two dead actresses for a conversation. But that has more to do with the science fiction of cryogenics that a fascination with watching dead people. We all own images of people alive or dead in some form, so they live on in the form of photography. Yet cinema is the most graphic in the instantaneous act of reigniting life into someone who has passed away, more often famous, unless you have home movies.

The act of watching either a film or home movie is in effect a temporary resurrection of the dead. It could be considered that those captured on film for entertainment have a desire to live forever in celluloid form, which is achieved by only a collection of talented people. I’m sure they didn’t all consider the fact they are being resurrected in terms of the Modoc’s Ghost Dance whose aim was far different from to be entertained, but for strength in numbers and immortality against the aggressor forces of the U.S. forces.

I’m hoping to do some more reading into this passage, and see if I can produce a piece of work. Going back to the book I would thoroughly recommend anyone who has an interest in photography, the origins of cinema and the American West to take a look at Solnit’s book which is more than just a biography, it’s a passionate document of a rapid time of technological change.

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One response

  1. I’ve never read this, but it sounds like just the right book to inspire you, judging by your projects.

    April 27, 2013 at 12:46 pm

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