‘The Inventor and the Tycoon,’ by Edward Ball – New York Times

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Genius, it seems, is almost always accompanied by eccentricity, if not madness. Those rare instances of genuine brilliance that we find scattered throughout history — in the music of Ludwig van Beethoven, the paintings of Vincent van Gogh, the mathematical equations of John Nash — often appear to have come at great cost to the minds that produced them. The work of Eadweard Muybridge is no exception.
While Muybridge’s photographs are widely known, his personal life has been largely neglected, which seems incredible now that, inEdward Ball’s engrossing book, “The Inventor and the Tycoon,” we have the whole fascinating story, full of strange and surprising details. At the height of his genius, Muybridge, a British immigrant whose stunning advancements in photography in the mid-to-late 1800s astonished the world and gave rise to the motion picture industry, looked and generally lived like a vagabond. He dressed in clothing so tattered that his uncombed, usually unwashed, hair poked out of holes in his hat, and his pants threatened to fall off in pieces as he walked. He ate cheese flies, tiny insects that hover around the tops of old cheese and that he used to gather up into packages and snack on as he brooded over his photographs. Then there was the small matter of the murder.
In 1874, just a year after one of his most important breakthroughs, when he was well into the work that would make him famous, Muybridge killed a man. The account of that crime, the passion and torment that led to it and the sensational trial that followed it, is woven throughout “The Inventor and the Tycoon.” Ball, who won the National Book Award in 1998 for “Slaves in the Family,” has found in Muybridge’s innovative genius and his troubled life a subject that would fascinate any reader. This story, however, is not the only one Ball tells.
As the title makes clear, the book is about two men — not just the brilliant and eccentric artist, but also his patron, the railroad magnate Leland Stanford. Stanford, best remembered today for founding the university named for his son, helped to build the first transcontinental railroad in the United States, a feat that made him a controversial figure and an immensely wealthy man. Never shy about spending his money, Stanford threw lavish dinner parties, encouraged his wife as she acquired a “pound or two” of diamonds and constructed a mansion so enormous it took up much of the block on which it sat. In no personal indulgence, though, did Stanford take greater pleasure than his horses.
For Stanford, whose love of horses had become a near obsession, it was not enough simply to see them run. He wanted to know how they ran. The very speed that made them so thrilling to watch, however, also made it impossible to study their gait closely, or to prove a hypothesis that Stanford fervently espoused: While galloping, horses at some point have all four hooves off the ground, thus becoming, however briefly, airborne.
In his determination to prove what became known as the theory of “unsupported transit,” Stanford turned to Muybridge, who was already renowned for his landscape photography, particularly his soaring pictures of Yosemite. When, in 1872, Stanford first raised the idea of using cameras to capture what the naked eye could not, Muybridge did not believe that photography had “yet arrived at such wonderful perfection as would enable it to depict a trotting horse.” But he was willing to try.
It wasn’t long before Muybridge accomplished what neither he nor most others had believed possible. By 1873, he had proved Stanford right, bringing, in Ball’s words, “motion to a halt” when he took photographs of a horse “with all four of his feet clearly lifted . . . above the surface of the ground.” A few years later, in an even more stunning accomplishment, Muybridge achieved the opposite effect. He made pictures move. By using 12 cameras, he was able to take “serial photographs,” which he then projected onto a screen through a machine he built himself called a zoopraxiscope. As the lighted photographs appeared in quick succession, the horse in the image seemed to gallop. The effect was “enough to turn your brain,” one magazine editor wrote. “We stretch our imagination to the maximum and are forced to cry ‘stop.’ ”
Incredibly, at the same time that Muybridge was achieving the impossible in his work, his personal life was driving him to the depths of despair and, finally, a desperate act. In 1871, he had married a young woman named Flora Downs, who was 20 years his junior. Three years later, not long after he had begun his experiments with Stanford, Muybridge shot to death a man named Harry Larkyns, who had been having an affair with Flora. Muybridge was quickly captured, and the fact of his guilt — he had murdered Larkyns in front of several witnesses — was indisputable. His lawyer, however, argued passionately that his client, “this poor, wronged and maddened man,” could not be held responsible for his actions because he had been driven insane by his wife’s infidelity. “Gentlemen,” he told the jury, “there is no statute in such cases that permits a man to slay his torturer. But, law or no law, every fiber of a man’s frame impels him to instant vengeance, and he will have it, even if hell yawns before him afterward.”
In a sense, it is fitting that Muybridge was acquitted and set free, escaping the hell that yawned before him. The jury’s verdict allowed him to make a complete and striking change, from coldblooded murderer to wronged man. As Ball explains, it was not Muybridge’s first transformation. He had a rare ability to shrug off an old persona and slip into a new one. Even in 19th-century California, where it was not uncommon to pretend to be someone else, a person with more promise and better prospects, Muybridge’s history of always remaking himself was remarkable. He changed the spelling of his name five times, even adopting the name Eduardo Santiago at one point, and, bizarrely, Helios at another. He changed his profession — from book salesman to entrepreneur to artist — his dress, even his personality. When a friend of Muybridge’s met him again after several years’ separation, he was shocked, later recalling incredulously that the photographer was “not the same man in any respect.”
Although Muybridge was a chameleon-like figure throughout his life, Ball uses exhaustive research and vivid details to pin him down so we can have a good look at him. Even the book’s structure seems to mimic Muybridge’s constantly shifting life. Ball moves backward and forward in time, from triumph to murder to despair and back again. In fact, although he describes the murder in the second chapter, he doesn’t explain Muybridge’s childhood until halfway through the book, and Stanford’s personal history comes later still. This approach to storytelling can leave the reader feeling slightly disoriented, but in the case of “The Inventor and the Tycoon,” it seems appropriate. In a way, the technique gives us a glimpse into Muybridge’s mind, which is a very interesting if unsettling place to be.
In the end, what matters is that, despite the “fame of his crime” and the shadow of madness, Muybridge was able to continue to work. Long before his death in 1904, he had achieved a type of immortality, spanning the worlds of art and science, winning the respect and admiration of the century’s greatest minds and leaving a legacy so strange and sweeping that even Muybridge himself could not have anticipated it. “Movies, television, video games, the twitching images of the Internet user,” Ball writes, “Muybridge’s pictures contain the primal DNA of all of them.”