From Eadweard Muybridge, 'Panorama of San Francisco from California Street Hill,' 1878.

Radical Light: 'Image Dissectors'

Rebecca Solnit September 17, 2010

Excerpted from Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945–2000, (Berkeley: University of California Press and The Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, 2010).  Copyright (c) 2010 by the Regents of the University of California.

Start by picturing San Francisco as geography: a long thumb of land hitchhiking the Pacific, tethered to the North American continent only by the outskirts of town along the San Bruno Mountains. No man is an island, but San Francisco is a peninsula at least, and a simple canal cut behind the San Brunos would make us what we really are, an independent republic, a Venice, a Luxembourg, a Laputa (Swift’s flying island of intellectuals in Gulliver’s Travels). And consider this: the biologist E. O. Wilson declared the San Brunos one of the world’s seventeen biodiversity hot spots, for the Mission Blue butterfly, found only here and on the southern tip of the Marin peninsula; for the nearly as localized San Francisco garter snake; and for a number of other endemic species. As my neighbor David Liitschwager, the photographer of endangered animals, once remarked, San Francisco has very nearly an island ecology, one that in its isolation has developed unique species and subspecies of butterflies and plants. Some of those are extinct or nearly extinct, but I often think that the best justification for the culture that has replaced nature is that it too has an island ecology, a creative drive that also fosters experiment, transformation, variation, and things that might not happen elsewhere. There is, as the saying goes, something in the air. Or the water, or the soil, or the culture. Or perhaps the fog. Something that generates the unlikely.

[Editor's note: Pacific Film Archive, on publishing its first book, Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945–2000, offers the first of three preview excerpts to SF360.org readers this month. A film/video series in conjunction with the book launch begins this weekend with Landscape as Expression, featuring Lawrence Jordan and Ernie Gehr in person Sun/19. A Radical L@te program Fri/17 also celebrates the book with sound and light performances by by Andrew Benson and Joshua Churchill; Seth Horvitz; and Curtis Tamm and Michael Campos-Quinn. Purchase the book at UC Press. The film/video series continues through March at PFA.]

Consider longtime San Francisco resident Eadweard Muybridge giving his Zoopraxiscope its public debut at the San Francisco Art Association on Pine Street in May 1880. The Zoopraxiscope brought together three technologies that would become the basis for cinema: the magic lantern, which had since the seventeenth century been a means of projecting images in a darkened room; the zootrope, which revealed how intermittent vision and rapidly moving images could simulate motion (though the original zootropes were only toys, the images only drawings of dancers and leapers); and another invention of the 1830s, photography, sped up by Muybridge’s 1870s achievements with chemistry and camera shutters to capture enough frames of animals in motion to provide something new—photographic material for a zootrope hybridized with a magic lantern. Thus on May 4, 1880, did horses trot and run on a screen: not quite the first motion picture screening—let the Lumières in Paris have that credit—but the first time cinema’s constituent elements were united in a public presentation. Writing about Muybridge, I decided, “Much has been written about the artistic and literary modernism that was born in Paris, but only high culture was born there, though that high culture was a response to the pervasive alienations and liberations brought by industrialization. Another part of the modern world came from California, and this part was and is an amalgamation of technology, entertainment, and what gets called lifestyle that became part of everyday life for more and more people around the world and a form of industrialization itself. Perhaps because California has no past—no past, at least, that it is willing to remember—it has always been peculiarly adept at trailblazing the future. We live in the future launched there.”1

Consider Muybridge speeding up photography into sequences of motion that became cinema. Consider Philo T. Farnsworth at 202 Green Street at the foot of Telegraph Hill, some forty-seven years later, toiling away on a vision for an image dissector he had while harrowing a field in Idaho, a vision that would culminate in television. Consider Bruce Conner at 1205 Oak Street, about three decades after Farnsworth and eight after Muybridge, making the first of his movies that would so festively deconstruct the language of movies and reconstruct them as something in which editing was a self-aware technique, a language of time as rhythm, pace, and causality, small collage movies that would reinvent the possibilities for editing movies. (In the 1980s I showed some Russian film students videos of Conner’s films. They sneered that the stuff was just like MTV—by which they meant its high-speed cutting—and I had to explain to them that this was made long before anyone had imagined an MTV or the world at that speed, long before Lucasfilm had made it a rat-a-tat technique for cinematic attention deficit disorder.) None of them were born here—Conner is from Kansas, Farnsworth from Utah, and Muybridge from near London—but they all chose to come here to realize what might not have been possible elsewhere, as did countless others.

One source of San Francisco’s extraordinarily fertile ground for invention is its history. As Kenneth Rexroth put it, “San Francisco was not just a wide-open town. It is the only city in the United States that was not settled overland by the westward-spreading puritanism or by the Walter Scott fake-cavalier tradition of the South. It had been settled mostly, in spite of all the romances of the overland migration, by gamblers, prostitutes, rascals, and fortune seekers who came across the Isthmus and around the Horn. They had their faults, but they were not influenced by Cotton Mather.”2 The Gold Rush created a community like nothing seen before or since, a polyglot mob of mostly young, mostly male fortune seekers who often chose to spend what small shares of fortune came their way on the arts. (Muybridge made a fine living selling art books in San Francisco in the 1850s, when he was one of dozens of booksellers in that boomtown at the end of the world.) As one of Muybridge’s contemporaries put it, “In California, Catholic and Protestant, Jew and Gentile, all seem to have united in the one effort of establishing a civilization on a broad and liberal foundation, the rules of which would not restrict in any way the liberties of any.”3

The San Francisco of the Gold Rush was extraordinarily isolated, an outpost not of anything so burdensome as civilization but of culture at the end of the world. A century later it was a lot less isolated, but the distance between the two coasts was still significant. (There are wonderful stories of painters out here whose vibrantly colored abstract expressionist paintings were modeled after their interpretation of the little black-and-white images of New York art in the art magazines, images that in the original turned out to be smaller and more dank than Californians anticipated.) There was a sense that no one was watching, that you could do whatever you wanted, that you’d escaped the rules. You moved to New York to enter history, to San Francisco to reinvent or subvert it at a safe distance. Perhaps it’s that the Bay Area strikes a balance between provincial and cosmopolitan, providing inspiration and benign neglect as the sort of sun and shade called for on most flower-seed packets, closeness to key communities, distance from key conventions. San Francisco was once the  capital of the West and of California; now it’s one site among many, though the one most likely to be an island republic, a counter-America, and it was because it functioned as a sanctuary from that other America that it attracted so many conscientious objectors, anarchists, queers, punks, performance artists, poets, revolutionaries, strong women and men in women’s clothes, visionaries, environmentalists.

San Francisco was invented nearly from scratch in the Gold Rush, to a large extent by people—like the queers and freaks and would-be bohemians of the present—intent on not bringing the past as convention and conformity with them. It is because of this baggage tossing that San Francisco, and more generally California, has been so good at inventing the future, a condition that is sometimes amnesia: no place is better at forgetting its past. The future was also a result of the hybridity that occurred when westward expansion came to its final frontier, the Pacific, across which lay the East. It’s here that history becomes geography. The East, embodied in Chinese, then Japanese, and later other Asian immigrants, came to California and helped it become a gateway for the spread of such phenomena as Buddhism, as well as one through which Mexico flowed into the United States and indigenous America. New York was born facing Europe and still does: its art still takes place within a fairly fixed understanding of high culture that both supports and limits that culture. “Poor Mexico! So far from God and so close to the United States,” the saying goes, and it could be switched around into: “Fortunate San Francisco! So far from London and Paris and New York, so close to the uncharted rest of the world!” For this nonwhite, non-European world has been important to San Francisco’s cultural flourishing, as the place of origin of many artists and as influence on the rest. 

But imagine, for a moment, that we have been following zooms and pans along these San Francisco phenomena; now let the camera pull back to put San Francisco back in its geography, to remember the free-speech university across the Bay, Silicon Valley at the base of its peninsula, Hollywood to the south—that California as a whole has been where the American future is forged in technology, recreation, lifestyle, counterculture, ecological thinking, and more. In the nineteenth century San Francisco was the capital of the unknown lands, and now it is perhaps the capital of another unknown, the futures being brought into being from the farthest frontiers of the imagination.

1. Rebecca Solnit, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (New York: Viking, 2003), 6.
2. Cited in Bruce Cook, The Beat Generation (New York: Charles Scribner and Sons, 1971), 37.
3. B. E. Lloyd, Lights and Shades in San Francisco (1876), cited in Doris Muscatine, Old San Francisco: The Biography of a City from Early Days to the Earthquake (New York: Putnam,, 1975), 344.

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