A strange al­liance of art and in­dus­try

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - Up aranam@wash­post.com Marie Arana is a former ed­i­tor of Book World. Her bi­og­ra­phy of South Amer­i­can lib­er­a­tor Simon Bo­li­var will be pub­lished this spring.

THE IN­VEN­TOR AND THE TY­COON A Gilded Age Mur­der and the Birth of Mov­ing Pic­tures By Ed­ward Ball Dou­ble­day. 447 pp. $29.95

In the course of four books, Ed­ward Ball has made a name for him­self as a chron­i­cler of Amer­i­can dis­com­fort. His first book, “Slaves in the Fam­ily,” ex­plored Ball fam­ily his­tory in the Amer­i­can South, re­vealed a ver­i­ta­ble trove of in­for­ma­tion about the 75,000 descen­dants of black slaves who once toiled on Ball plan­ta­tions and gar­nered a great deal of press for his claim that, although he couldn’t be held re­spon­si­ble, he con­sid­ered him­self ac­count­able for many atroc­i­ties com­mit­ted against hu­mankind. Pub­lished 15 years ago, the book was hailed for its courage, taken to task for its clunk­i­ness and self-ab­sorp­tion, and ended up win­ning a Na­tional Book Award, hearty plau­dits from Oprah Win­frey and a firm place on best­seller lists.

Ball went on to write three more books about race and scan­dal, although none really mea­sured up to the first. “The Sweet Hell In­side” told the story of the Har­leston fam­ily, a clan of high-liv­ing, “high-yel­low” African Amer­i­cans be­got­ten by a white gen­tle­man and his slave; “Penin­sula of Lies” was about Dawn Lan­g­ley Hall, a Charleston so­ci­ety ma­tron who be­gan life in Eng­land as a boy, mar­ried a black male me­chanic and claimed to have birthed a baby girl; and, lastly, “The Ge­netic Strand,” which doc­u­mented a hunt through Ball fam­ily DNA for ev­i­dence of black or Na­tive Amer­i­can an­ces­tors. Tricked out as sus­pense sto­ries, th­ese books were heav­ily re­searched, laden with in­for­ma­tion and weighed down by an ir­re­press­ible urge to leave no stone un­turned, no side story un­told.

Now, Ball turns his in­ter­est in his­tory’s strange bed­fel­lows to a com­min­gling of a dif­fer­ent kind. Draw­ing on his early ca­reer as a film and art critic, he gives us the re­mark­able story of the al­liance be­tween the ec­cen­tric in­ven­tor of the mo­tion pic­ture and the mogul who built the na­tion’s rails. It is a story that, for all its whirling parts and di­va­ga­tions, tells us a great deal about the cross­roads of money and art in Amer­ica.

Through­out life, Ed­ward Muy­bridge — a.k.a. Ead­weard, “He­lios,” Ted Mug­geridge, Muy­gridge or E.J. Mug­gridge — changed his name as of­ten as a giddy teenager. He was born in Kingston, a sub­urb of Lon­don, in 1830, lived in the United States for half a cen­tury and re­turned to die on the very patch where he’d be­gun. In the in­terim, he sin­gle­hand­edly trans­formed pho­tog­ra­phy, es­tab­lished a tech­nique for panorama, cap­tured the glow of wa­ter­falls on still film, parsed the move­ments of a rac­ing horse and in­vented the zooprax­is­cope: the first mo­tion pic­ture pro­jec­tor in his­tory.

He was an odd man, en­tirely sui generis. “Soli­tary, peri­patetic,” Ball writes, “Muy­bridge lived like a cast­away, de­ra­ci­nated and drift­ing. . . . In New York, [he was] a sales­man of books and art. Af­ter ten years, he would re­nounce this life and be­come an in­ven­tor, and af­ter that an artist.” But a con­stant itch to re­de­fine him­self would be his rule. In time, he passed through many ver­sions: mur­derer, fugi­tive, pho­tog­ra­pher of bizarre nudes and then — serendip­i­tously — so­ci­ety’s golden boy, a cel­e­brated, world-fa­mous sci­en­tist. As mer­cu­rial as the time into which he was born, he would start in an era of car­rier pi­geons and end at the apex of the in­dus­trial age.

In 1873, the trans­planted Muy­bridge was busily pho­tograph­ing the mag­nif­i­cence of Yosemite, the gru­el­ing moil of the transcon­ti­nen­tal rail­way, the “half va­pory look” of plung­ing cataracts, the stun­ning whim­si­cal­ity of a chang­ing sky, when he was ap­proached by Le­land Stan­ford, the Cal­i­for­nia gro­cer, gov­er­nor turned rail­road ty­coon and even­tual founder of Stan- ford Univer­sity. Stan­ford chal­lenged Muy­bridge to pho­to­graph a gal­lop­ing stal­lion and prove that all its hooves could be off the ground at the same time.

Per­haps it was on a bet. Per­haps it was a broader in­ter­est in an­i­mal physics or an ea­ger­ness to build on a bur­geon­ing art col­lec­tion, but Stan­ford was so taken with the nov­elty of the en­ter­prise that he was will­ing to fund it. In the course of his ex­per­i­ments, Muy­bridge in­vented a ma­chine to project the pic­tures. To ev­ery­one’s sur­prise, not least their own, Stan­ford — who was tac­i­turn, ph­leg­matic and ruth­less — and Muy­bridge — who was nim­ble, un­pre­dictable and highly ner­vous — found much to talk about and be­came un­likely friends. Even­tu­ally, as Muy­bridge per­fected his mov­ing pic­tures, Stan­ford per­suaded him to pho­to­graph his manse as well.

A no­table event took place be­tween the pho­tograph­ing of horse and house: a cal­cu­lated, cold-blooded mur­der, per­pe­trated be­fore a num­ber of wit­nesses. Muy­bridge, con­vinced that he was be­ing two-timed by his wife and that the son he thought his own was the child of a dap­per ne’er-dow­ell, made his way to his cuck­older’s card ta­ble and shot a bul­let into his heart. Cal­i­for­nia be­ing Cal­i­for­nia, Muy­bridge got away with it. As Ball de­scribes it:

“The Muy­bridge mur­der trial ex­hib­ited fa­mil­iar parts — sex, be­trayal, re­venge — but a new el­e­ment put them on ev­ery­one’s lips, the speed of the in­for­ma­tion. Daily re­ports from the court­room went down the wires by tele­graph, the story ric­o­chet­ing around Amer­ica not un­like the trains. . . . Sto­ries were bla­zoned of the wild se­ducer . . . the beau­ti­ful and cred­u­lous wife . . . and the too-se­ri­ous artist, Ed­ward Muy­bridge. The ad­mit­ted killer was sketched to be the sad­dest fig­ure in the cast, a hus­band who paid the price for ne­glect.”

When Muy­bridge was ac­quit­ted, Stan­ford sought him out again. “Did the rich­est man in the West think twice be­fore em­ploy­ing a killer?” Ball asks. “The Oc­to­pus [as the grasp­ing Stan­ford was called] might have, had he lived some­where else in Amer­ica, but in Cal­i­for­nia Muy­bridge’s so­cial cap­i­tal went not down, af­ter the trial. By the code of West­ern jus­tice, the ver­dict of the in­di­vid­ual and the law of the gun, Muy­bridge had avenged him­self and . . . an at­mos­phere of dark supremacy hung around him. In sum­mer 1876, Stan­ford hired the pho­tog­ra­pher again, with no re­grets.”

The rail­road ty­coon, cor­rupt and filled with noth­ing so much as greed and un­tram­meled am­bi­tion, be­trayed him a few years later, mov­ing to lay claim on Muy­bridge’s in­ven­tion by pub­lish­ing his pho­to­graphs with no credit what­so­ever. In the end, Thomas Edi­son pulled a fast one on both of them. Then, as now, en­ter­pris­ing Amer­i­cans in me­dia or make-be­lieve worlds — think Steve Jobs or Steven Spiel­berg — were fierce, un­remit­ting com­peti­tors.

For all the nat­u­ral at­trac­tions of this fas­ci­nat­ing tale, Ball’s book is marred by his ef­fort to stuff his­tory into the sleeve of a de­tec­tive story. What is most in­ter­est­ing about this book is hardly its trumped-up sus­pense. It is the mak­ing of an as­ton­ish­ing artist, the mar­velous pho­to­graphs that at­test to his ge­nius, the rous­ing good yarn — for all the stut­ter­ing chronol­ogy and au­tho­rial in­tru­sions — at the nexus of in­dus­try and art. Maybe it’s time this faith­ful chron­i­cler of dis­com­fort got a lit­tle more com­fort­able with his sto­ry­line.


In 1878, Ed­ward Muy­bridge used 12 cam­eras to cap­ture 12 im­ages of a horse’s gait. “The Horse in Mo­tion” fea­tured Le­land Stan­ford’s mare Sal­lie Gard­ner.

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