Monday, August 29, 2005

"River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West." by Rebecca Solnit.

In 1872 Edward Muybridge took the first photographs of a horse in motion. The horse, named Occident, belonged to Leland Stanford, and was one of the fastest trotting horses in the country. The photographs were commissioned to reveal whether a trotting horse ever has all four feet off the ground at the same time. During the decade that followed, Muybridge developed camera shutters that could make exposures of a fraction of a second for the first time. To go along with it, he made film that was fast enough to capture images in such a brief time. The stop motion effect was used to dissect rapid movements into a series of still photographs. Muybridge also developed the zootrope, which makes a series of spring images seen through a slot appear to be a single image in motion. In other words, his work provided the elements that eventually became moving pictures.

Muybridge was born Edward James Muggeridge in a town called Kingston-upon-Thames (just upriver from London). Over the course of his adult life, he changed his first name to Eadward, and his last name first to Muygrige, and later to Muybridge.

He arrived in San Francisco in the autumn of 1855, when that city was the capital of the gold rush--and a place where people found it easy and attractive to reinvent themselves.

Photographic negatives were made on glass plates, which were in themselves valuable. Photographers sometimes scraped and reused them. "...many negatives of the Civil War were recycled into greenhouse plates without being scraped, their images of the harvest of death gradually fading away to let more and more light in on the orchids or cucumbers beneath." Upon his death, William Ruofson's (Muybridge's dealer of the mid-1870s) negatives, including those of Muybridge's wife, Flora, were sold to author Joaquin Miller to make a greenhouse.

The wet-plate photographic process used in the 1860s and 70s required that the negative be made, exposed, and developed in quick succession. Muybridge sometimes had as many as 4 assistants with him when he traveled, as well as a pack train to transport gear and chemicals. A dark tent or wagon was required. Inside the tent, a glass plate was turned into a negative by the application of collodion, a volatile syrup of gun cotton and ether. The coated plate was then dipped into a bath of silver nitrate, drained and placed in a light-excluding holder to be placed in the camera. The photograph had to be taken before the emulsion dried and the photograph developed immediately. The entire process took a fast photographer around half an hour. There were no shutters or light meters--exposure was accomplished by removing the lens cap for an interval of a few seconds to several minutes, the time based on the experience and intuition of the photographer.

The US Army hired Muybridge to document the Modoc wars in photographs. For the Modoc, the Tule Lake region was the center of the world, and the army was determined to displace them from it. In 1873 they fought hard among natural labyrinth of the Lava Bed Stronghold.

The Modocs were involved with a version of the Ghost Dance, and danced in the belief that it would bring back their dead. The author, Solnit, describes the Ghost Dance as a technology, and finds parallels in the spiritualist movement that began in the 1840s and reached a peak in the U.S. in the years after the Civil War. "To propose annihilating the inexorable march of history and the irreversibility of death was to propose a technology as ambitious as a moon walk or a gene splice."

For more about Muybridge and examples of his work click here.