Saturday, January 5, 2013

Preserving (and doing) time

We are entertained by an endless stream of images based on the invention of stop-motion photography. Video cameras record a series of pictures – many per second – which are replayed back to us on movie screens, televisions, and computer monitors, thus preserving moments in time even long after the subjects are dead. I once read that the inventor of the motion picture camera was the famous Thomas Edison, but it turns out he was basically a thief and appropriated the invention of another.

Edward Muggeridge was an Englishman with an artistic eye and a penchant for inventions who emigrated to the United States, eventually settling in San Francisco and becoming a landscape photographer. This was in the frontier decades of California where a person could reinvent himself, and Muggeridge went through a series of names including "Helios" before finally calling himself Eadweard Muybridge. Along the way he made friends with the most powerful and influential people in the city and even killed a man.

Leland Stanford, one-time governor of California and wealthy railroad tycoon (and future founder of Stanford University), was one of those friends. Stanford had an obsession with horses, and the question of the day was whether or not all hooves left the ground during a gallop. With Stanford backing him financially, Muybridge invented a process to photograph a horse (and later other animals and lots of naked people) and replay the photos to settle the question once and for all. (Stanford also provided a lawyer when Muybridge killed his wife's adulterous lover in the little Sonoma town of Calistoga.)

Edward Ball tells the story of the two men in his book The Inventor and the Tycoon: A Gilded Age Murder and the Birth of Moving Pictures, and it's a fascinating tale. Ball reaches back to their early lives and traces their paths as they cross and separate, and it appears that he's done a considerable amount of research (including why Muybridge might have changed his name at different times). In spite of that he also engages in a fair amount of speculation, and the words "if" and "might" pop up frequently. He is oftentimes harsh in his assessments, particularly of Stanford, but that's not much of a complaint since I tend to agree with him. Numerous pictures (some depicting nudity) illustrate the history well, and it's a very readable story. I think anyone interested in the history of motion pictures or California will find this an interesting read. (I received an advance copy from the publisher. The book will be available for sale on January 22, 2013.)

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