Thursday, December 25, 2008

What our Eyes and souls can see: reflections on Christmas at the Moon

We'll take a pause, in honor of the holiday, to offer something a little more poetical -- commemorating one of humanity's great moments, th Christmas Day sojourn of Apollo 8 in orbit around the moon, in 1968. The following is a book review I wrote -- it appears in my new collection of nonfiction insights and essays Through Stranger Eyes.

Art, Technology and Modernity

RIVER OF SHADOWS: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, by Rebecca Solnit. Reviewed by David Brin

Despite our human bent for defining things, the most-subjective mental realm -- art -- stays elusive. Still, for the sake of discussion, suppose we call effective visual art any human-created work that changes people who view it, challenging perceptions or assumptions, transforming hearts and minds nonverbally.

A painting, photo or sculpture may tug empathy, revulsion, longing, regret, determination or re-evaluation, without ever resorting to argument or verbal suasion. By this way of reckoning, the 20th century featured two outstandingly potent works of effective visual art -- images that inarguably penetrated millions through their eyes and optic nerves, transforming many of us forever.

The first of these --the terrifying image of the atom bomb -- warned that it was time to put down our little-boy romantic attachment to glorious war. Faced with an awesome new power to destroy nearly everything, defense became the business of serious adults. Even among soldiers, combat is generally seen as evidence of failure - an urgent, risky measure arising out of inadequate diplomacy, preparation or deterrence. True, this transition remains incomplete, yet it seems remarkable in contrast to attitudes widely held just a few generations back. Moreover, the lesson came largely unspoken. Words were unneeded. For multitudes, that awful mushroom cloud sufficed.

The second great image of the Twentieth Century arrived as coda to the most difficult year many of us can remember - 1968 - one that brought Americans to the brink of exhaustion and despair. Week after week of assassinations, riots, warfare, brutality, brinkmanship and numbing loss culminated with a final token -- like a gleam of hope shining at the bottom of Pandora’s Box -- when Apollo 8 astronauts brought home that first perfect image of Planet Earth, rising over the airless Moon. A floating blue marble in space. That picture moved all but the most cynical hearts, helped spur environmentalism and changed forever our outlook toward this fragile oasis-world.

These images -- one of them searing us with dread, the other with resolution -- are seldom called “art.” They did not flow from the stereotypical studio of some romantic genius, solitary and contemptuously solipsistic. Rather, they came about as side effects from vast technological undertakings. The same agents -- physicists and engineers -- who were producing pell mell progress, also delivered the requisite sermon: use these powers well.

Other influential images surely rank just below those two. They range from snapshots of faraway planets to documentary footage of concentration camps. From war’s brutality to moments of sublime poignancy. The greatest untold story of art -- a story that romantics strive to repress -- is how much of it seems to arise out of nerdy inventiveness, or gritty journalism, or ingenuous amateurism, or even (shudder) team efforts. Images that impress, persuade and become part of our ongoing conversation about how to save the world.

Moreover, the medium that decisively empowered this role for art was itself a technological breakthrough -- photography.

In RIVER OF SHADOWS: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, author Rebecca Solnit documents a crucial phase of photography’s transformation from a static adjunct of portraiture to something far more dynamic, cogent and liberating. In Muybridge -- who famously captured the multiple movements of a running horse -- she found an icon for everything disreputable and admirable about a time of rapid change. Inventor, explorer, businessman, huckster, murderer, photo-journalist and innovator, Muybridge was among the most colorful figures of mid-19th Century San Francisco, possibly the most colorful place humans ever lived. As a passionate photographer, Muybridge helped propel his era and his art.

An art in rapid transition. Until fast emulsions became available, exposure times were agonizingly long. People took on stiff poses. Any riffle of wind would make nature seem a-blur. Most outdoor shots were taken mid-day, when direct sunshine seems to flatten everything -- till Muybridge captured clouds and waterfalls in a fraction of a heartbeat. Natural wonders like Yosemite burst into three dimensions, caught in slanting dawn light.

But a horse named Occident gave Muybridge his biggest challenge and success. Devising dozens of new techniques, he arranged for a series of cameras to trip in rapid sequence, reproducing motion in a series of still images. “Photography arose out of the desire to fix the two-dimensional image that the camera obscura created from the visible world,” Solnit writes. From the 1830s through the 1860s, artisans such as Daguerre and Brady pioneered techniques for capturing a sliced moment, preserving memory of a particular person or place, in a narrow slice of time. But Muybridge’s horse broke out of that slice. Occident moved. Each frame had past, a future, and thus movement. Even ambition.

Meanwhile, time itself was under assault. Railroads and industry demanded both precision and repeatability. Workers who formerly knew only day, night, mealtimes and seasons now had to regulate their rhythms in tempo with uncompromising clocks, consoling themselves with the cornucopia of goods that industry provided. Not everyone liked this bargain, as Solnit writes -- “Nathaniel Hawthorne’s grimly comic short story of 1846, ‘the Celestial Railroad,’ sent a group of pilgrims by rail across the landscape of the great spiritual allegory The Pilgrim’s progress. The harsh terrain that John Bunyan’s Pilgrim had trod on foot sped by pleasantly, but the train ended up in hell rather than paradise. The old world, Hawthorne seems to argue, was arduous, but it knew where it was going.”

In following Muybridge’s own pilgrimage west, Solnit describes a San Francisco that surely seemed hell-bent -- or at least blithely accepting of tumult. A place without so-called eternal verities, where men -- and many dynamic women -- felt free to re-invent themselves at will, as Muybridge repeatedly changed his own name. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner, portrayed the frontier as the fundamental wellspring of American development and character, and it was here that the spirit of unrestrained opportunity reached its zenith, as mere shopkeepers like Leland Stanford mixed chicanery with pioneering acumen, launching themselves into the Olympic stratosphere of nouveau wealth and self-made power. As patron to Muybridge’s time-and-motion studies, Stanford would contribute not only to the study of horses, but to the advance of rapid photography and all that ensued.

Solnit portrays technical innovations, like faster photographic emulsions and ingenious quick-shutters, with the drama of a gold strike or a lynching -- and the latter almost did happen to Muybridge one day, shortly after he gunned down his wife’s lover in one of the most infamous scandals of the old west. Set free by a jury on grounds of “defending honor”, Muybridge went on to perform his most famous experiments, capturing details in the motion of horses, runners, dancers and even birds. While pioneering the art of rapidly sequenced images, he met Thomas Edison and provided many key elements that led to motion pictures, cinema and later video.

“This is the paradox of Muybridge’s work. He was using his state-of-the-art equipment to feed that ravenous appetite for place, for time, for bodies. He had turned his back on the slow world of his grandfather’s barges and pigeons to embrace the new railroad and photographic technology, and with electricity and chemistry he made the latter faster than ever.” And yet -- “His inventive technology was depicting ... bodies that seemed ever more alienated by technological change.”

Nowhere is this more evident than in Muybridge’s journalistic pictures of the Modoc War, documenting one of the most eerie conflicts between the United States and a native people. Viewing them now, we see a core truth. Ours is not the first era to be riven by change. Technology can disrupt. It eases some old pains while amplifying others. And if that were the whole story, romantics might be right to call the cost too high.

But technology is also a mother of art. New kinds of art that shine light into old shadows, art that nags the conscience, that shows the cost. And therein lies our hope. As we gain power over space and time and even life itself, art reminds us. Use these powers well.


normdoering said...

Happy Squidmas everyone!

Dwight Williams said...

It's good to have these reminders of such times past as these. Thank you kindly.

David Brin said...

For the "predicted in EARTH"....

The Apple computer was invented in a garage. Same with the Google search engine. Now, tinkerers are working at home with the basic building blocks of life itself.

Using homemade lab equipment and the wealth of scientific knowledge available online, these hobbyists are trying to create new life forms through genetic engineering — a field long dominated by Ph.D.s toiling in university and corporate laboratories.

In her San Francisco dining room lab, for example, 31-year-old computer programmer Meredith L. Patterson is trying to develop genetically altered yogurt bacteria that will glow green to signal the presence of melamine, the chemical that turned Chinese-made baby formula and pet food deadly.

Age of amateurs indeed!

Dwight Williams said...

I don't know whether to be pleased, frightened or both at the news about the melamine-detection project. Probably both, and the reasons for both are already explained in the article itself.