Stopping Time

In the spring of 1872, a man stopped time. The arresting instrument was a simple camera, with which Eadweard Muybridge photographed a trotting horse. Within the frame of this legendary image, Muybridge captured the sliver of a moment when all four of the animal's feet were off the ground, thereby resolving a minor, if heated, scientific debate of his day. A group of prominent East Coast horsemen had claimed that a trotting horse always retained at least one hoof on the ground, while a West Coast group, led by California railway baron Leland Stanford, argued that at some point in its gait a racing trotter was entirely airborne. Stanford saw himself as a man of science and had long been interested in the phenomenon of motion, about which he liked to declare that nobody understood anything. Determined to settle at least one of its mysteries, he commissioned Muybridge to devise a photographic method fast enough to gather the critical evidence. Though the image Muybridge produced has long since been lost, it set in motion a revolution that has reconfigured our relationship to time.

In her new book, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, San Francisco writer Rebecca Solnit argues that Muybridge's photo, and the many thousands of motion-study images that followed it, must be seen as "the crucial breakthrough that made movies possible." That Muybridge played a role in the evolution of motion pictures is a thesis hard to dispute, and anyone interested in the history of cinema will delight in Solnit's account of his zoopraxiscope — a device by which he reassembled his famous photographic series into short animated sequences. Preceding the invention of the first movie projection systems by several years, the zoopraxiscope was said to have influenced Thomas Edison and was certainly one of the earliest moving picture machines. (Readers no longer possessing this venerable technology may view Muybridge's sequences online at chronoph/muybridge/index.htm)

Solnit rightly locates Muybridge at the center of a much larger story about the transformation of time and space that took place in the late 19th century. Railroads, telegraphy, photography, the steam engine and the invention of Standard Time all contributed to the rapid pace of industrialization and an unprecedented speeding up of everyday life. Soon, the motor car, the airplane and electricity would fuel this trend, while cinema, with its uncanny power to compress decades into the space of an hour, would become a further engine of time's apparent acceleration. River of Shadows is a densely layered and illuminating book, if at times a little breathy. Solnit stresses Muybridge's role not as an artist but as a technological pioneer, a protean mind (as were so many in that age) relentlessly pursuing mechanical, chemical and electrical innovations. Yet surely the essence of Muybridge's revolution is not so much his undeniable contribution to the illusion of motion, but rather the opposite. Above all, with his radical explorations using stop-motion photography, Muybridge taught us how to still time.

In the image-saturated environment of the early 21st century, we have come to take high-speed photography for granted, but in 1878, the Photographic Times was recommending exposure times of five to 10 minutes for landscape photography. Obviously, human subjects couldn't be expected to stay still for anywhere near so long; nonetheless in another journal we learn that portrait exposures generally ranged from two to 30 seconds. To fulfill Stanford's commission, Muybridge would have to do a great deal better than that. As Solnit wryly remarks, he would have to be "in another galaxy altogether." By Muybridge's estimation, Stanford's horse would be moving at 38 feet per second; in order to capture the definitive wafer of motion, he would need an exposure of no more than a few hundredths of a second.

As far back as 1851, William Fox Talbot had experimented with "instantaneous photography," and the word instantaneous recurred constantly in mid-19th-century photographic literature, though just what the term meant varied considerably. Most often it seemed to mean exposures of around a second — not nearly good enough for Muybridge's purposes. Throughout the 1850s and '60s, photographic inventors searched for a means to make images more rapidly, a project that had been hindered by two obstacles: The first was mechanical, the second chemical. High-speed images require a high-speed shutter, but at the time the canonical method for controlling shutter speed was simply to remove the lens cap by hand and replace it after a suitable interval. Photographers seeking finer control had to construct their own mechanisms.

The second obstacle was the "speed" of the recording medium itself. The wet-plate process in common use was fairly insensitive and usually required long exposures to capture any image at all. Muybridge had to resolve both of these problems. At the peak of his career he boasted that he'd reduced his exposure times to just two thousandths of a second, an extraordinary technical achievement for the time. (A current exhibition at Stanford University's Cantor Arts Center, "Time Stands Still," pays homage to Muybridge and other pre-cinematic pioneers of stop-motion photography, documenting the early history of this new image-making technology.)


By projecting a sequence of static images, movies create a facsimile of motion; Muybridge reverses that process, reducing motion to a series of stills. Though it is true, as he proved with the zoopraxiscope, that you can reassemble such series into a movielike illusion of motion, our enduring fascination with his work is the insight it provides into time's interstices. It is not the trotting of the horse that we care about here (the overall flow of the motion) but that single slice of time in which we witness the feet off the ground. Where movies trade in verbs — the director's cry is "Action!" — Muybridge trades in nouns, for in these endlessly reproduced images, figures in motion are transformed into objects in space, forever suspended, like insects in amber. It is precisely in this freezing that Muybridge foreshadows one of the major technological movements of the coming century.

We are used to hearing about the slicing of space — microchip manufacturers etching ever-thinner lines onto silicon, nanoengineers fabricating ever-smaller devices — but the ability to subdivide time has been an equally potent force in the modern techno-cultural landscape. Just as spatial exploration at superfine scales leads to new discoveries (think of quantum mechanics, and the revelations of the subatomic domain), so the ability to view microfine segments of time opens up new insights. The aerodynamics of bullets, the beating of hummingbirds' wings, and the astounding corona that rears up around a drop of water as it splashes into a pool — all these have been the fruits of high-speed photography. Since Muybridge, scientists have learned to shave time with an increasingly accurate blade.

Just two weeks ago, biophysicist Howard Petty at the University of Michigan Health System announced the stunning discovery of calcium waves pulsing through a cell. Petty captured these waves using super-high-speed imaging techniques with shutter speeds 600,000 times faster than regular video frames. As part of a cell's immune response, calcium wave regulation has implications for treating autoimmune diseases such as arthritis and multiple sclerosis.

At Stanford's Picosecond Free Electron Laser Center, physicists produce intense pulses of laser light minutely timed to last just a few picoseconds. A single picosecond is a mere millionth of a millionth of a second. With these pulses, scientists can observe the vibrational modes of proteins, thereby helping to understand the processes of energy transfer and dissipation in biological systems. But, the picosecond itself is only a way station. For 15 years, researchers have been dreaming about taking snapshots of chemical reactions. A National Research Council of Canada team led by Paul Corkum has generated pulses of just a few femtoseconds' duration — a femtosecond being a thousandth of a picosecond. Corkum's ultimate goal is the attosecond, a thousand times shorter still, just a billionth of a billionth of a second! At this scale, Corkum says, they should be able to catch molecules in the act of splitting apart.

From a horse's gait to the dance of chemical reactions, time becomes an instrument of illumination — make it stand still, and for a split second, all will be revealed.

RIVER OF SHADOWS: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West | By REBECCA SOLNIT | Farrar, Strauss and Giroux | 305 pages | $26 hardcover


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