Book Review: River of Shadows (“Horses in the Air! Whose Baby is This?”)

After sitting on my shelf for a good long time, I finally took the time to dive into Rebecca Solnit’s River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, and it was a dive well worth taking.

The outline of Muybridge’s story has been familiar to me for a while, primarily via the Phillip Glass opera “The Photographer”. Muybridge, a transplant from England, was already an international celebrity based on his pioneering landscape photography of California’s landscape, especially Yosemite national park, in the period during and immediately after the California Gold Rush.

Having discovered that his wife, 20 years his junior was having an affair with a Colonel Larkyns via an intercepted letter. He confronted Larkyns at his home and killed him with a single shot on the doorstep, leaving his wife pregnant with Larkyns’ child. The resulting scandal and sensational trial was the OJ trial of the 18th century, and as OJ would be more then a century later, Muybridge was acquitted by a California jury.

Unlike OJ, Muybridge went on to a second and even greater act in his life, and the result was … the final steps that led to the eventual creation of both Hollywood and Silicon Valley.

While Muybridge was making a name for himself as a landscape photographer, Leland Stanford’s fortune was well underway as a result of his railroad building. Stanford already owned the farm in Palo Alto that would later become the university named for his son, and he had a fine collection of 800 racing and trotting horses there, including the fastest horse in the country at the time.

Among the horse racing set of the era, it was unknown and a matter of dispute as to whether or not trotters ever had all feet off the ground an any time. Stanford commissioned Muybridge to find out. Legend (and the Phillip Glass page referenced above claims as fact) that this effort was to settle a bet, but Solnit discounts this, indicating that there is no evidence that Stanford was a gambling man, but that he was interested in advancing knowledge for knowledge’s sake.

Regardless, the resulting effort, which would last the rest of Muybridge’s life, changed the world of photography, leaving the stage set for the invention of cinema, and the business models of both Hollywood and Silicon Valley, including a clash over intellectual property and credit between the financier and the inventor.

Solnit’s book is not merely a recounting of this tale, although a full biography of Muybridge and a partial biography of Stanford is the foundation of the book. She has woven a interesting layer of analysis and philosophy regarding the interacting natures of Stanford’s railroad accomplishments and Muybridge’s photographic accomplishments. She makes the compelling case that the these two men’s individual and shared accomplishments are still resonating loudly, even if they are for the most part forgotten footnotes in history, in the way businesses are evolving in the Internet era of the early 21st century.

Well worth reading indeed.

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