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River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West

4.14  ·  Rating Details ·  926 Ratings  ·  120 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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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
Mar 05, 2012 Geoff rated it it was amazing
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
Jan 13, 2014 Edward rated it really liked it
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
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
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
Bryan Alexander
May 06, 2014 Bryan Alexander rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, technology
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
Oct 13, 2014 Myles rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
(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.
Feb 02, 2009 Christine rated it really liked it
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.
Jeff Friederichsen
Oct 25, 2014 Jeff Friederichsen rated it really liked it
Solnit's diligent reportage ties a multitude of social movements and technologies into a tight web, revealing the less obvious forces of history. Sometimes the rubber bands of connection come pretty close to snapping, but the result of so much scholarship is impressive. Eadweard Muybridge seems to have been at the very nexus of our modern age—the author leaves no stone unturned in her analysis of his place and time, and the import of his famous motion studies. We know what he did, and when—less ...more
Greg Brown
Mar 03, 2012 Greg Brown rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
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
Fil Krynicki
Jan 17, 2013 Fil Krynicki rated it it was ok
I didn't really like this book. I didn't even quite finish it. I believe I am on page 220 or so (of 250). When I couldn't even motivate myself to pick it up on a plane ride home, I knew it was done.

Something about this part-history, part-biography, part-metaphor just doesn't do it for me. All of its subjects are touched on only in moments, and the use of a metaphor of condensing time to connect the disparate pieces always struck me as forced. I learned a little bit, but not a lot, and I was unin
Cheryl Jacobs
Jan 18, 2008 Cheryl Jacobs rated it it was amazing
Shelves: recommended
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.
Mar 15, 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."
Whitney Berry
Jul 21, 2010 Whitney Berry rated it really liked it
This book has officially hooked me on Solnit. She's my new Joan Didion.
Joshua Buhs
Rebecca Solnit explains things to me. Brilliantly.

This book, of course, is the one that inspired her essay “Men Explain Things to Me,” and launched mansplaining. (Which word is recognized by spell check!) Famously, she was at a party and told a man she had just written a book on Eadweard Muyrbidge; the man went on to declaim about a Muybridge based on a book review he had read in the Times. It took Solnit’s companion three times to get the man to understand that that was the book she had written
Jan 28, 2011 Anna rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
(See my full review here:

I would be interested in this book if it focused solely on the “annihilation of time and space” that hooked so much public and professional attention in the late-nineteenth century, but certainly Muybridge’s life and work is a compelling way to orient this story. And Solnit, as a thinker with broad interests and unabashed fascination in her subject, seems primed to be the perfect guide.

But the wealth of intriguing material here is, unfortunat
Mar 25, 2016 Suzi rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
Checked this book out from the library, but ended up buying it halfway through so I could take my time reading it and keep it as a reference. This book is interesting to history, movie, and photo buffs alike, as well as people who just like a good Western story. I came into the book with a BFA in photography and a love a multi-paneled images, so I already had a fair amount of knowledge about Muybridge's photography, but I still learned a ton. History is so much more interesting when art is invol ...more
blue-collar mind
Apr 19, 2009 blue-collar mind rated it really liked it
Shelves: grassroots-stuff
"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
Feb 05, 2013 Brinley rated it it was amazing
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
Nov 08, 2014 Jara rated it it was ok
Shelves: college
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.
Jul 14, 2007 David rated it did not like it
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.
Sara Watson
Jul 31, 2013 Sara Watson rated it it was amazing
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
Carolyn Fitzpatrick
Mar 16, 2017 Carolyn Fitzpatrick rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, science, art
If you are JUST interested in photography, you will be skipping a lot of sections of this book. The narrative frequently zooms out to provide a broader picture of what life was like in the late 19th century, particularly in California.

I didn't know very much at all about the history of photography, and needed to get up to speed on Muybridge to help my students prepare for the AP Art History exam. Plus the author's "Men Explain Things to Me" article: But
Grace Di Cecco
Dec 30, 2016 Grace Di Cecco rated it really liked it
This book took me literally a semester to read, but I don't regret sticking with it. The writing is beautiful and surprising, not the typical history book language. This is the type of non-fiction book where the author's voice and point of view add a lot of value to the set of facts being presented.
Sean Hanley
Nov 06, 2016 Sean Hanley rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
if you are into this kinda thing it's such an engaging read
Jan 16, 2017 Chad rated it liked it
"Muybridge was a doorway, a pivot between that old world and ours, and to follow him is to follow the choices they got us here."

Considered the father of cinema, Muybridge was an early pioneer of photography, first in landscapes of Yosemite and other Californian landmarks and later in "motion studies" at the new Stanford University, which became the basis for motion pictures. He also shot his wife's lover and later sued Stanford over his groundbreaking pictures. Solnit runs a winding thread throu
Gayle Smith
I'm 25% through this book. I'm very tired of the author beating me over the head with the Irony Club. Go it. Fast is slow. New is old. Closer is further. I'm going we get to something approaching a plot line or storyline sometime soon. This is billed as a book about a person who lead a varied and colorful life. Well, he'd better get cracking.
Mar 06, 2017 Brad rated it it was amazing
Great historical read about the beginnings of the madness of our current world. It all starts with Eadweard Mybridge (and telegraphs and railroads too). So excited to have recently discovered the wonder that is Rebecca Solnit.
Interesting thesis, dull reading. Muybridge was a technical genius with cameras and motion.
Devin Kelly
Feb 22, 2017 Devin Kelly rated it it was amazing
Unbelievably fascinating
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Rebecca Solnit is an American author who often writes on the environment, politics, place, and art. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications in print and online, including the Guardian newspaper and Harper's Magazine, where she is the first woman to regularly write the Easy Chair column founded in 1851. She is also a regular contributor to the political blog TomDispatch and to LitHub.

More about Rebecca Solnit...

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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.” 5 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...” 2 likes
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