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River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West

4.15 of 5 stars 4.15  ·  rating details  ·  592 ratings  ·  80 reviews
The world as we know it today began in California in the late 1800s, and Eadweard Muybridge had a lot to do with it. This striking assertion is at the heart of Rebecca Solnit’s new book, which weaves together biography, history, and fascinating insights into art and technology to create a boldly original portrait of America on the threshold of modernity. The story of Muybr ...more
Paperback, 320 pages
Published March 2nd 2004 by Penguin Books (first published 2003)
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Community Reviews

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Eric
Out west, the complex responses to industrialization and its transformation of time and space include things never dealt with by the impressionist painters and avant-garde poets usually talked of as modernist, include Indian wars and identity shifts, a landscape being claimed and renamed, photography as art, and a comic literature.

Rebecca Solnit doesn’t explicitly oppose the history of San Francisco to Walter Benjamin’s characterization of Paris as “capitol of the nineteenth century” (Baudelair
...more
Geoff
Nov 09, 2012 Geoff rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommended to Geoff by: Eric
I left the theater after my second viewing of The Master last night with Muybridge on my mind. There are many reasons for this. One might be that The Master was being shown in 70mm, it’s the first film I’ve seen in that resolution, and it is magnificently sharp, with bright, vivid, and subtle coloring, more expansive sound. It is the next advance in the medium that Eadweard Muybridge helped to inspire over 150 years ago. I am far removed from that time, but I’m living in a sensory world that has ...more
Bryan Alexander
River of Shadows is an imaginative look at the origins of modernity. Its main focus is the photographer Eadweard Muybridge, best known for inventing the motion study method of breaking down rapid motion into viewable scenes. Rebecca Solnit uses Muybridge's biography to explore great themes of modernity's emergence: the reduction of space, the recreation of time, the destruction of nature, speed's rapid acceleration, the rise of giant figures, and the defeats of many.

The biography nicely balance
...more
Jeff
The reviews on this site have it about accurate, though they may value Solnit's speculations about the twin cultures of technology and film, for which Muybridge and California Victoriana are viewed as responsible, slightly more than I do. (I prefer her book about California painters of the post-war period.) She is of course not the first to connect tech history with the film industry; similarly, her work on Muybridge is indebted to scholars to whom I can't find all that much of her book's value ...more
Greg Brown
Basically amazing. Rebecca Solnit surveys Eadweard Muybridge's life and career, tracing the changing effects of space and time throughout his photographic work. At the same time, Muybridge is but a tiny corner in the story, simply the distillation of the larger cultural currents at play—the annihilation of space and time by railroads, telegraphs, and photography that radically changed our sense of what distance meant and made the world accessible (in a certain sense) to all.

Solnit also pulls off
...more
Edward
If you think of Eadweard Muybridge at all, you probably remember him as an obscure l9th century photographer, the man who first proved through time lapse photography that when a horse gallops, all four hooves are off the ground at the same time. Okay, but 300 pages about his life?

What Solnit does is to simultaneously place him within the context of his time, the geographical west of 19th century California, opened up by the transcontinental railroads, and at the same time, a culture of onrushin
...more
Miriam
Nov 09, 2011 Miriam marked it as to-read

Not actually about this book (although the book is mentioned), but a good article by the author about "mansplaining."
Reenie
This book is interesting, although at times that fact was almost obscured by the writing style, which has a recurring tendency to extremely florid prose. Isn't it odd how these days fiction writers generally avoid anything floral or lengthy in description to avoid being 'purple' or Victorian, while non-fiction writers can get away with writing sentences that would make a Bronte sister roll her eyes? Not that they always do it, but the mystical floralness does crop up more often, and at least for ...more
Jara
Solnit can write a superb sentence. That is not up for debate. And she obviously can handle a lot of research and put it together beautifully. Unfortunately, I cannot stand to read nonfiction historical pieces, so being forced to read this for a class was torture. It would be a great book for people who love panoramas of history going on in the background of some big development, but I will never be able to look at this book again.
blue-collar mind
"The annihilation of time and space and the industrialization of everyday life" is the author's own description of Muybridge's time. The Victorian era was a phenomenon and one that I cannot adequately imagine was like in a time that brought stop action photography, the telegraph, the train (among other innovations), but that description certainly helps.
Solnit is a modern writer and sees the world from her own time, but is also able to give you the historical perspective that is necessary, especi
...more
Brinley
Only complaint really is that I wish there were more images in the book. It felt frustrating for the author to describe a specific photograph in detail only to have no visual accompaniment or to see a completely different picture from that discussed, but from the same series. Otherwise this was a fascinating historical read of a deconstructed Western narrative, and I appreciated the different angles she shed light on in the Anglo development of Northern California, and how the motion studies add ...more
Myles
(4.7/5.0) Solnit is so obviously influenced by her subject, this pretentious, determined photographer who climbed to the tops of mountain peaks and robber barons' mansions just to find a new perspective. Her take on history is so out there, so committed to linking unexpected events and actors, so refreshing.

She was my professor my last semester at Cal, and she speaks just as she writes, is spider-like in her ability to weave in circles, rapidly and with serious elegance.
Christine
What strikes me about Rebecca Solnit's writing is her ability to come off as a modest writer, one who is trying to "figure out" her books, her storylines, her history, right alongside the reader, but at the same time, is rich with research and knowledge about her topics. The intelligence oozes through, but never once does her writing read as showy or grandiose -- it is simply engaging, thought-provoking, involved stuff. More than worthwhile, it is necessary.
David
Friends raved about this book, and - indeed - it did seem like the kind of subject that I would find interesting. But. I. just. could. not. finish. it. The prose was like molasses, infused with lead. Plodding. Pedestrian. Unreadable. Godawful.

A shame. Because there was probably an interesting story in there somewhere, trying to get out.
Cheryl Jacobs
Lots of fun California and San Francisco history in this one, all wrapped up in a novel-esque package. Muybridge (known for his motion studies) was an amazing photographer in history, and if you are curious about him, early photography, early western frontier and the railroad, go for it.
Whitney Berry
This book has officially hooked me on Solnit. She's my new Joan Didion.
Sara M. Watson
Annihilating Time and Space: Reading River of Shadows

It has been a crazy couple of weeks. I was running on full steam wrapping up my thesis through July 22, and then went straight into cleaning-packing-moving mode moments after my return from the Exam Schools. And even after we got nearly all the unpacking done at the end of last weekend (save for the boxes of artwork), I still felt a little brain dead this past week. It was starting to get frustrating, because I wanted desperately to get into t
...more
Sam
It's not so much a biography as a description of a historical moment, when, the author would have us believe, our species changed in fundamental ways. Time stops and speeds up. Distance collapses into almost nothing. The very acts of seeing, doing, remembering, and being in a place take on new dimensions. Hilarity ensues.

Solnit overwrites a little, but she's clearly a fine researcher, and a good Americanist. Not only do I now know more about Muybridge than is probably necessary to get along in s
...more
Tom Mayer
Jun 30, 2013 Tom Mayer rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: people who like the history of California and Film
Rebecca Solnit blew me away with this book. I came to her work after reading the excellent piece she did in Harpers in July. Here she presents a prismatic study of Eadweard Muybridge, the man who did more than any other to invent the instantaneous photograph, proving conclusively that a horse lifted all four hooves from the ground while running. At the behest of Leland Stanford, he would go on to do hundreds of pioneering studies of various animals in motion, including humans, revolutionizing ou ...more
Brynn
"Photography may have been its most paradoxical invention: a technological breakthrough for holding onto the past, a technology always rushing forward, always looking backward." (15)

"Even so, photography was a profound transformation of the world it entered. Before, every face, every place, every event, had been unique, seen only once and then lost forever among the changes of age, light, time. The past existed only in memory and interpretation, and the world beyond one's own experience was most
...more
Ian
"...They flocked to see the Diorama imitating a nearby church they could have visited in actuality for free. This is one of the great enigmas of modern life: why the representation of a thing can fascinate those who would ignore the original."

What I would call an impressionist biography of Muybridge—with as much attention given to the background of things he experienced only indirectly as those which were of primary importance. Solnit succeeds in conveying the rapidity and importance of technolo
...more
Summer Brennan
Quite a good book. It began to lose me little at the 75% mark, but this was merely a little slow patch in the relationship, and I was glad to have pulled through to the end. The amount of research that went into this must have been truly exhaustive.
Andy
Overall a great lense on Muybridge's life and work. Solnit focuses on how Muybridge helped change the way we exist in the world today, connecting him to the railroads, Sitting Bull, Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and the state of California (among many many other things). Despite the complicated web of connections, for most of the book she exibits enough restraint to maintain the central narrative and keep it from becoming too unweildy. There's a sense that in the last chapter she gives up on that r ...more
Vasha7
A look at the cultural history of a pivotal period in American history: then entry of railroads into the west, and the beginning of the widespread use of photographs, among other things. Lots of interesting info about that very original guy Muybridge, too; he was atypical enough, and also enough a product of his times, that it provides some tension to the story. But most of the tension comes from the very real unease of cultural change, and competing strands of life. I'm not expressing this very ...more
Spiros
Oct 05, 2010 Spiros rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone who wonders whether one can step in the same river twice
A lovely meditaion on the nature of time, and how our perception of time as well as distance was irretrievably altered by the technological advances of 19th century: the railroad, the telegraph, and photography. Muybridge's career stages reflected three types of time: his Yosemite views recorded geologic time, his coverage of the Modoc War in Califonia's northeastern region documented the clash of industrial with preindustrial time, his panoramas of San Francisco showed the results of industrial ...more
Rory
I'm not sure I actually read this. I looked at all the pictures and captions. I read the introduction and most of the footnotes. I skimmed several chapters. I got onto Wikipedia and read Muybridge's entry. I bought into the thesis: that the strange singularity of California produced both Hollywood and Silicone Valley, and that these places and concepts were in place well before the 19th century was over, and that they changed our world forever. But I didn't actually READ this book. It was too mu ...more
Jody Sperling
Fantastic, compelling book. Solnit makes a strong case for Muybridge's motion studies as a "pivot point" in history. She lays out the connections between development of the railroad, telegraph communication and photography, which all functioned as "space and time annihilating" technologies. The sweeping narrative touches on the expansion of the west, the Indian wars, the history of photography and cinema, Muybridge's professional and personal life, ghost dances, railroad baron Muybridge-patron a ...more
Jason
Aug 19, 2010 Jason rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommended to Jason by: Lillian
It's a wonderful thesis that Solnit crafts here - Muybridge as a lens to view the dual cultures birthed in California in the 1800s - technology and the film industry. For the most part, Solnit succeeds in linking the two, but the book flags a bit in pacing toward the end, perhaps due to the mixed success of Muybridge's continued photographic explorations. Reflective of the age that was to come, Muybridge rode the wave as long as he could, and was drowned out by other voices with deeper pockets o ...more
Julia
as a history book for school, this was really interesting, but as a book to read on my free time, not so much
Richard
Jul 19, 2007 Richard rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: anyone interested in photography, the West, industry, media
Shelves: favorites
Great book. The author shows how industrialization changed perception of time, place, and authenticity. By examining Muybridge's life (pioneer of motion pictures) and the rise of the railroads/industrialization, you get: passages on the weirdness of stopping time; the weirdness of duplicating life outside of life; the destruction of distance, place, and homeland (the Native Americans); the speeding up and regimentation of time through industrialization, and the accompanying speeding up of natura ...more
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Rebecca Solnit (b. 1961) is the author of numerous books, including Hope in the Dark, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, Wanderlust: A History of Walking, and As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender, and Art, which was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism. In 2003, she received the prestigious Lannan Literary Award.
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“What distinguishes a technological world is that the terms of nature are obscured; one need not live quite in the present or the local.” 2 likes
“The whites who administered Native American subjugation claimed to be recruiting the Indians to join them in a truer, more coherent worldview—but whether it was about spirituality and the afterlife, the role of women, the nature of glaciers, the age of the world, or the theory of evolution, these white Victorians were in a world topsy-turvy with change, uncertainty and controversy. Deference was paid to Christianity and honest agricultural toil, but more than few questioned the former, and most, as the gold rushes, confidence men, and lionized millionaires proved, would gladly escape the latter. So the attempt to make Indians into Christian agriculturists was akin to those contemporary efforts whereby charities send cast-off clothing to impoverished regions: the Indians were being handed a system that was worn out...” 1 likes
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