February 1, 2013

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.


‘The Inventor and the Tycoon: A Gilded Age Murder and the Birth of Moving Pictures’ by Edward Ball (Doubleday)

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 Stanford 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-do-well, 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 up 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.

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