Rebecca Solnit, a prolific and original Californian writer, is perhaps best known for her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2002). Her new book refashions the image of a pioneer of instantaneous photography (and thereby of cinema) whom aficionados of photographic and cinematic history thought they knew well. A San Franciscan herself, Solnit situates Muybridge vividly in the city during its 19th-century "silver age" and connects the "annihilation of space and time" in his photographs with the phenomena of the discovery of ancient geological (as opposed to biblical) time, of the railroads that joined the East Coast of the US to the West in 1869, the Indian wars and - in a bravura final chapter - Silicon Valley.
Edward James Muggeridge was born in Kingston-upon-Thames, the son of a merchant in grain and coal, in 1830. He emigrated to America as a young man "to make a name for himself", arriving in San Francisco at the age of 25. The city was the perfect setting for humans to reinvent themselves.
Edward Muggeridge became Muygridge in the 1850s, Muybridge in the 1860s and Eadweard in 1882. He established himself as a bookseller in a period when San Francisco boasted 40 bookshops and more than a dozen photographic studios. Photography flourished in the era of the gold rush, the coming of the railroads and the discovery by artists and tourists of Yosemite.
Muybridge was to become, in the late 1860s, a major photographer of Yosemite. His mammoth plate views of the valley, showing its rock-faces scored by glaciers, won him an international reputation. His arrest for the murder of his wife's lover in 1874 brought him notoriety, although he was acquitted at his trial the following year.
He created remarkable photographs as far north as Alaska and as far south as Guatemala, extraordinarily skilful panoramic views of San Francisco and documentary photographs of the Modoc war in 1873. The Indian wars brought two concepts of time and space into collision.
All of these remarkable series would have earned him a secure place in photographic and other histories, but he is remembered today principally for his instantaneous photographs. His experiments began in 1872 with a commission from the railroad baron Leland Stanford to photograph his trotting horse Occident. With Stanford's money and workshops behind him, Muybridge found ways to record rapid action. His photographs demonstrated for the first time the succession of movements horses make when cantering and galloping.
In addition to publishing the evidence in albums of photographs, Muybridge devised a means of projecting magic-lantern slides representing the horses'
movements at life size. He performed his slide lectures to acclaim in the US, Paris and London. In Paris he caused consternation among the painters, especially those who, like Ernest Meissonier, had prided themselves on the accuracy of their representation of galloping horses. His presentation spurred his contemporary Etienne-Jules Marey to refine his own techniques for arresting movement.
In London, Muybridge performed at the Royal Institution for an audience that included the prince and princess of Wales. A performance in Orange, New Jersey, in 1888 was followed by a visit to Thomas Edison's laboratory, which sparked the inventor's interest in combining instantaneous photography and the phonograph. In effect, Muybridge imagined cinema four decades before the "talkies" became a reality.
Although Stanford managed to usurp the credit for the work he commissioned from Muybridge, the photographer created a final great summing up of his researches at the University of Pennsylvania. There he made the studies that became the portfolio of 781 collotype plates, Animal Locomotion (1887-88). This encyclopedia of human figures who stroll, leap, perform gymnastics or balletically tip a straw hat, plus a variety of animals from the university zoo, has become one of the most influential sources of imagery in later art.
This book opens up Muybridge's life and achievement with excellent new research, a broad hinterland of knowledge and most attractive writing.
Mark Haworth-Booth is senior curator of photographs, Victoria and Albert Museum.
Motion Studies: Time, Space and Eadweard Muybridge
Author - Rebecca Solnit
Publisher - Bloomsbury
Pages - 305
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 0 7475 6220 2