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Conversation: Rebecca Solnit, Biographer of Eadweard Muybridge

'River of Shadows' by Rebecca SolnitRebecca Solnit is the author of “River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West,” which won the 2003 National Book Award for Criticism. She is also a contributor to the exhibition catalog for “Helios: Eadweard Muybridge and a Time of Change.”

As part of our feature on Muybridge, Art Beat talked to Solnit about uncovering the seams of reality and time in photography, the economy of images we find on the internet today, image bombardment in advertising, and why we still love to take and show each other photos after all these years.

A recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, Solnit is also the author of “Wanderlust: A History of Walking” and “A Field Guide to Getting Lost.”

[Full transcript after the jump]

Rebecca Solnit. Photo by Jim Herrington
ART BEAT: In your essay for the Corcoran show, “Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change,” you call the world in Muybridge’s photographs “all but discomposed.” Can you explain what you meant by that?

Above: Photo by Jim Herrington

REBECCA SOLNIT: Well, one way to frame it is that he is often compared to his great contemporary in California, the photographer Carleton Watkins, who was born the same year, worked in many of the same places such as Yosemite National Park and San Francisco, with the same formats of mammoth plate prints and panoramas and stereoscopes and things like that. But Watkins was a superlative example of a conventional photographer. His images aspired to a kind of classical calm and composure. We call a graceful, harmonious work “composed” and Muybridge’s work is “decomposed” or “discomposed” — things are coming apart and you see the seams of reality, of time in them. He’s interested in process. He’s ok with things, a lot of things, other photographers then were not so excited about, like the way that water looks very strange when you photograph it in a slow exposure.

And then after he speeds up photography, he’s also ok with the very strange way that water and human beings look captured in all these odd positions nobody had ever seen before. And a splash of water arching up from the bucket like a leaping serpent is not really something anybody had seen in painting, and although you kind of almost glimpse it with your eyes, you don’t really hold that vision. I think he liked things when they were coming apart, when they were strange.

ART BEAT: You draw some nice connections about time in the old world Muybridge came from, and the time that he prefigured. What do you make of those connections?

REBECCA SOLNIT: You know, it’s convenient, but perhaps not a coincidence that Muybridge was born in 1830, the year the first passenger railway ran in England, the land he was born in. That’s before Queen Victoria ascends the thrown, before the Victorian age, and it’s an age when until those new machines come into being — first the railroad and then photography and the telegraph — everything really moves at the speed of wind, water and flesh and blood. You travel by carriage or by boat; you don’t move any faster than nature ever did. And then suddenly you have these steam engine locomotives and you can go at what was then the dizzying speed of 30 miles an hour which speeds up considerably over the next few decades, to speeds not that far below present speeds for conventional trains and things like that. And it changes the world astonishingly. And so Muybridge’s lifespan from 1830 to 1904 really spans from the beginning of railroads to the rise of the automobile and the early experiments in aviation, as well as the birth of photography. He is born before the birth of photography and dies after the achievement of motion pictures as we know them now in their essential form. So just his life span alone is the life span of perhaps the greatest technological change in the history of the world, I think greater in many ways than the kind of digital, computer virtual age that we’re in now, which really only extends technologies like the telegraph into new dimensions.

ART BEAT: In the book, you talk about photography extending vision into a new realm. Do you think, in some ways, the internet is doing to society what photography did then?

REBECCA SOLNIT: I’m not sure what I’d say about the internet because there are so many aspects to it, from the plethora of porn to the way a friend of mine once remarked, it’s a device for forgetting everything before 1993, because not that much of the past is well-archived. You can look up anything on a lot of newspapers back to some date 10 or 15 years ago but not necessarily before then. Lots of contemporary stuff like YouTube videos embedded on Facebook pages exist, but I don’t know if that makes us more image rich or more image poor because we’re now spending a lot of time staring at the tiny screens of cell phones and laptops and things. That almost feels like an impoverishment from going to a movie theater and seeing some great screen star’s face 25 feet high on the big screen. You know, we have more data, but I’m not sure we have richer or more enchanting data.

ART BEAT: And yet photography is still with us, maybe even more so with the prevalence of digital photography. In putting the book together did you find any sort of answer, either personal or cultural, for why people in general, or Muybridge in particular, were and still are fascinated by images?

REBECCA SOLNIT: I think that an image is always an interpretation and I think it helps us to sort out the world to be given somebody else’s version of it. I may or may not notice the sunset but a picture is made to be noticed. So you show me your picture of the sunset and it tells me that you consider this worth looking at, and that you’ve presented it to me in a way that you think that I should look at and will want to look at it. While though I think that currency has worn thin in a way, because the density of image bombardment has increased so much in my lifetime that it’s now very easy to ignore images, even images of extreme violence, sexuality, things that are shocking and sensational. Things that are incredibly beautiful are being used for all the most banal advertising purposes. The sublime landscape has an SUV trundling through it, telling you that you want to buy it to make your life complete.

So I don’t know about the economy of images; I’m still ambivalent about it. But the other question of why we might want to look at images even more than the real thing: I think there is some quality when you look at an image of, not only seeing this thing, whether it’s the horse or the sky, but you are seeing somebody point at it and say, “Look!”

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