15 September 2011

River of Shadows/ Motion Studies Guest Review!

UK edition, published by Bloomsbury Publishing
As mentioned here some time ago, I've managed to manipulate my fellow bookclub members into generating some blog content.. That is to say, for our last meeting, they all kindly read Rebecca Solnit's book River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (also known in the UK as Motion Studies: Time, Space and Eadweard Muybridge), discussed said book, and one of their number has now gone above and beyond the call of duty to contribute some of his thoughts to PLATE!

US edition, published by Viking Adult
I'm really interested in the conflicts and connections between the written word and visual materials and I wanted to read Solnit's book, in particular, to see how she would incorporate art criticism with biography of Muybridge and cultural criticism. I had been really impressed by (for which, read, 'I fell in love with') her book A Field Guide To Getting Lost, after it was recommended to me by a colleague, and came to River of Shadows hoping for the same absorbing, lyrical, reading experience. I was also interested to see how the bookmakers would present the photographs in question.

I have to say, I was slightly disappointed by the book. I felt that, despite Solnit's in-depth knowledge of and passion for her subject, she struggled to weave together all of the historical and cultural strands in the book into a coherent whole (I'm inclined to agree with Carl, that the book's cultural analysis becomes too repetitive). As a fan of photography - and particularly the work of Muybridge - I was also hoping for more extended criticism of his work, and was only really satisfied by the section discussing his 'Yosemite' photographs in this respect. However, there were lots of things to like as well, and I will leave my excellent guest writer, Carl Fulbrook, to give you an idea what these were!

US edition, published by Penguin
Carl Fulbrook - I had few expectations before beginning River of Shadows; I hadn't heard of Eadweard Muybridge, I barely knew anything about the history of photography, and I (still) have only obscure notions of American history during Muybridge's. In frankness, these are not subjects I'm usually drawn to. But that's the beauty of a bookclub: you read things your friends want to read and discuss, and this usually yields a reading process of enjoyment and critical analysis in a more-or-less fruitful balance.

So I began Solnit's book knowing only that it was about one of the great innovators of photography and cinema. And it is in part a biography of Eadweard Muybridge. But the great strength of this book is that it is a lot more than biography; Solnit deftly traverses several usually discrete genres to develop a book that is at once the life story of Muybridge, a history of photographic technology and Silicon Valley, a cultural critique, and a portrait of an era in America's mid-West that is too often distorted by myth - including fascinating accounts of the so-called 'Indian Wars' and the General Strike. There's even a bit of sassy murder trial courtroom drama and, at the very end, a nostalgic personal postlude. In fact, one salient feature several people noted during our bookclub discussion was that Muybridge the character is almost the book's ellipsis. Something of his tenacity emerges through his achievements, but his photographic career was so varied (in the best sense) that it is hard to gain any definite impression of him through his work, and the brief flashes of personal drama (most obviously, murdering his wife's lover) occur like aberrations in a rather anaemic account of the externals of his life. No matter - Muybridge was evidently not remarkable for his charisma.

At her best, Solnit handles her subjects with a confidence that figures genre as irrelevant: it is quite often a very carefully woven narrative. I didn't find that this level was maintained throughout, however, and there were a several passages that seemed repetitive and didn't maintain my interest. I found The River of Shadows most compelling when it placed the concerns of Muybridge and his contemporaries in a larger historical frame. It was sobering and unsettling to realise how rapidly and dramatically technology have altered our relationship with both other people and with the physical world. By the twenty-first century almost every experience of our lives is structured and mediated by increasingly bureaucratic technological apparatuses. As Solnit points out, in a commentary inflected by Marxism, new technologies did not simply feed but created an appetite for a commodified representations of the world. By framing and freezing phenomena through human innovation, we lent ourselves the impression we were mastering the world; by converting this spirit of innovation into a means for profit, we commodified and alienated ourselves from it, although in doing so feverishly stoked the desire to innovate. Solnit is nostalgic in her commentary, although not wholly bleak - cinema is, after all, a very exciting and potentially reflective technology. The book ends in a very ambivalent key, and I'm grateful for it: it is rich food-for-rumination.

If you've read River of Shadows and have your own thoughts about the book that you'd like to share with PLATE readers, just drop me an e-mail at platethephotoblog@gmail.com - I will aim to publish a collection of new comments on the blog in a month or so. Even better, if you have photography-related book recommendations for me, the bookclub or other readers, send them over and I will incorporate these into another post!