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Curled Up with a Good Book

Seidman recreates the struggles of photographer Edward Muybridge un late 19th-century San Francisco. America stands on the cusp of tremendous technological advances: the days of high finance and robber barons, completion of the first transcontinental railroad and spectacular advances in photography. The ambitious Muybridge is crossing the country with his expensive cameras in a Conestoga wagon, along the way photographing the advancements of the Central Pacific Railroad championed by Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, Hollis P. Huntington and Mark Hopkins. Muybridge’s photographic history captures the daily images of progress and its collateral damage in lost lives.

Two people are pivotal to Muybridge’s immediate future at this point in his life: Leland Stanford, the great robber baron and railroad promoter; and dancer/feminist Holly Hughes, an educated, freethinking young woman who captures the photographer’s heart. Though Holly cautions about Stanford’s potential demands should he engage Edward, Muybridge is seduced by opportunity. Stanford funds the means of expanding the experiments that burn like fire in the young man’s imagination, pushing him to create new techniques, to capture images never before attempted.

Underestimating the power of Holly’s imprint on his psyche—a fearless feminist unafraid to profess her views or express her affection—Muybridge seeks to please both, an impossible task. Fooling himself about Stanford’s motivations and respect for him as an individual, Edward risks everything to accomplish his dream, only to find that Holly has slipped away. The result it tragic, the loss irrevocable as Muybridge confronts the cost of his choices. From his first meeting with both Hughes and Stanford, Seidman fills his novel with the excitement of the era, the advances of science and inventions, the mechanism for capturing history in the making, and a widening appreciation for technological advances that portend an industrialized future in a country driven by capitalism.

Muybridge is one of a breed of forward-thinking individuals excited by visions of future accomplishments—one of a handful of geniuses as the whole country awakens to the opportunities afforded by modern science. In this context, the photographer’s attraction to Stanford’s wealthy is understandable, the easiest pathway to long-imagined success. Equally powerful is Muybridge’s attraction to Holly Hughes, an exceptional woman with a bright mind and the determination to deliver her message to a reluctant patriarchal society, the most loyal friend Muybridge will ever have.

Muybridge’s humanity informs his tragic downfall, the course of his life altered in a moment of unthinking passion. A great love story, the unusual union of Muybridge and Hughes drives the narrative of the photographer’s life, but the American quest for progress is another important character in this fascinating period drama: “Photography’s like progress. It constantly moves ahead.”