Étienne-Jules Marey

 
The Running Lion Tamer (1886). In his experiments documenting humans in motion, Marey had his subjects dress up in a black garment and would apply small reflective markers on their joints. This enabled him to make a detailed report of their movement. Photograph/Étienne-Jules Marey

The Running Lion Tamer (1886). In his experiments documenting humans in motion, Marey had his subjects dress up in a black garment and would apply small reflective markers on their joints. This enabled him to make a detailed report of their movement. Photograph/Étienne-Jules Marey

Conchita Fernandes looks back at the remarkable life of Étienne-Jules Marey, the relatively less known pioneer of the study of movement.

Étienne-Jules Marey (1830–1904)

Étienne-Jules Marey (1830–1904)

When Leland Stanford approached Eadweard Muybridge in 1872, he came with an unusual request; to photographically prove that at some point all four limbs of a horse are suspended mid-air during a trot or a gallop. After a slew of unsuccessful attempts, in 1878, Muybridge used 12 cameras to prove the theory, and forever became synonymous with the study of locomotion. But several miles away, a French scientist by the name of Étienne-Jules Marey was already underway in his experimentations involving animal and bird movement. All he was missing was a camera.

Studying the Intricacies of Motion
For Marey, a doctor and physiologist, the human body was an animate machine, and he was curious about how it functioned and what caused it to move. He conducted extensive tests and experiments on the circulation and hydraulics of blood and breath, the elasticity, strength and tone of muscle, and built a variety of elaborate mechanical instruments to aid him in the process. But he found this limiting, and gradually moved his focus to the physical aspect of how birds and animals moved. He hoped and dreamed that his findings would be useful in building machines that were as adept and dexterous as living beings.

Examining Birds…
One of his early experiments involved birds, a subject that he would continue to conduct several experiments with. He built an air pantographe—a device used to study a live bird in flight. The rods connecting the bird and the pantographe transmitted its movements to a device which produced elaborate graphs. With this method, Marey recorded the movements of different animals and gathered his findings in one of his first seminal books, Animal Mechanism: A Treatise on Terrestrial and Aerial Locomotion (1973). In the book, he opened with the words, “Living beings have frequently been… compared to machines, but it is only in the present day that the… justice of this comparison is fully comprehensible.”

He conducted several experiments on how air movement was affected when intercepted by objects of different shapes. Photograph/Étienne-Jules Marey

He conducted several experiments on how air movement was affected when intercepted by objects of different shapes. Photograph/Étienne-Jules Marey

His Introduction to the Camera
However, his polygraphic techniques, though useful, were sluggish and limiting. This changed when he came across Muybridge’s sequential photographs in the journal La Nature (1879). Marey invited him to Paris to demonstrate his technique, and it was here that he discovered the potential of the camera as a more adept recording device, as opposed to his graphical representations.
However, Muybridge’s technique seemed unconvincing. He realised that the use of different cameras to record each image meant that there was no single point of reference from which changes in position could be assessed. Moreover, accurately measuring the gaps of time between movements was problematic, and resulted in an incomplete representation of motion. This propelled him to build his own camera, the first of which was the photographic gun (1882). The gun was inspired by a technique used by the astronomer Pierre Jules César Janssen, to capture the movement of stars (1874). But the device that Janssen used was limiting and made only 48 images in 72 seconds, hardly producing the illusion of movement. This was solved in 1880, with the introduction of the dry photographic plate, which made it possible to shoot shorter exposures. Marey’s gun could now make 12 exposures per second. The images were the size of a postage stamp and were arranged around the edge of a revolving circular photographic plate. Still, he was dissatisfied with the lack of clarity in the photographs and began working on a camera that would lay the foundation for motion pictures.

This propelled him to build his own camera, the first of which was the photographic gun (1882). The gun was inspired by a technique used by the astronomer Pierre Jules César Janssen, to capture the movement of stars (1874). But the device that Janssen used was limiting and made only 48 images in 72 seconds, hardly producing the illusion of movement. This was solved in 1880, with the introduction of the dry photographic plate, which made it possible to shoot shorter exposures. Marey’s gun could now make 12 exposures per second. The images were the size of a postage stamp and were arranged around the edge of a revolving circular photographic plate. Still, he was dissatisfied with the lack of clarity in the photographs and began working on a camera that would lay the foundation for motion pictures.

“Marey made it possible for the avant-garde to become receptive to new values: instead of escape into the past, the unreal or the dream, there was the double cult of machines and their propulsion… Inspiring Giacomo Balla and Luigi Russolo, Marinetti, and ultimately Duchamp.” —Marta Braun

The Invention that Launched Stop Motion
The camera, or rather the technique that Marey coined was Chronophotography (1888), made possible via a device that incorporated a silver bromide emulsion on a paper ribbon, a rotating shutter and a gelatin-based film. Using this, he succeeded in combining several successive images of a single movement on a single plate, thus enabling him to record the flight of a pigeon at 60 frames per second on a single strip. This is regarded as the first motion picture, and was published in his book released in 1890, Le Vol des Oiseaux (The Flight of Birds). In fact, the book inspired the Wright Brothers in their pursuit of flying. For Marey, it was all about

In fact, the book inspired the Wright Brothers in their pursuit of flying. For Marey, it was all about precision, and believed that if we accurately measured the movement of birds, we would be able to replicate its motion. “At a time when aerial locomotion is occupying so many researchers, there is a clear need to understand the behaviour of the air through which are passed bodies of various shapes: balloons, aeroplanes, etc. Even the flight of a bird, if the nature of the wing movements is shown by chronophotography, requires, in order to be understood, that one knows the behaviour of the air which gives the wing its support,” he said. The Wright Brothers however weren’t too concerned about birds, as they were about the principles of aerodynamics. Marey is said to have told them, “I’ll study the birds and copy them,” to which they replied, “Forget birds. We don’t have millions of years. We must make our own beginning if we want to fly.”

Sculpture of the motion of a seagull (1887). He did not just stop at photographs, but went ahead and sketched his findings. He then turned them into impressive bronze and plaster sculptures, which were truly kinetic works of art. Photograph/Étienne-Jules Marey

Sculpture of the motion of a seagull (1887). He did not just stop at photographs, but went ahead and sketched his findings. He then turned them into impressive bronze and plaster sculptures, which were truly kinetic works of art. Photograph/Étienne-Jules Marey

His Legacy and Influence
Chronophotography presented him with a variety of opportunities to study the human form. His first client was the French government, who hoped that his study would help them design exercises that would ensure the fitness and endurance of their troops. And so, Marey created a physiological station, where his subjects, all dressed in white, were photographed as they walked, ran, leapt and jumped, against a black background. Later, he created several renditions of this, one of them being a man descending an inclined plane, which later inspired Marcel Duchamp’s painting, Nude Descending the Staircase. It’s quite impossible to gauge the extent of Marey’s influence, as it well surpassed the photographic sphere. He may not have been as widely known as Muybridge, but his work influenced the likes of Thomas Edison; the Lumière brothers; futuristic painter Giacomo Balla, who replicated his work on motion in the painting Dynamism Of A Dog On A Leash; and Harold Edgerton, another pioneer who furthered Marey’s work, except that he used flash to produce images with far greater accuracy and clarity. Although Marey was a man of science, one cannot ignore his profound contribution to photography. For him, facts mattered immensely, unlike Muybridge, who Marta Braun (author of Picturing Time: The Work of Étienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904)) recounts as a man whose work though important, ‘were full of gaps, rearrangements and seemingly willful deceptions.’ For Marey, the camera was a tool, with which he successfully tested the boundaries of what was possible with human locomotion.

It’s quite impossible to gauge the extent of Marey’s influence, as it well surpassed the photographic sphere. He may not have been as widely known as Muybridge, but his work influenced the likes of Thomas Edison; the Lumière brothers; futuristic painter Giacomo Balla, who replicated his work on motion in the painting Dynamism Of A Dog On A Leash; and Harold Edgerton, another pioneer who furthered Marey’s work, except that he used flash to produce images with far greater accuracy and clarity. Although Marey was a man of science, one cannot ignore his profound contribution to photography. For him, facts mattered immensely, unlike Muybridge, who Marta Braun (author of Picturing Time: The Work of Étienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904)) recounts as a man whose work though important, ‘were full of gaps, rearrangements and seemingly willful deceptions.’ For Marey, the camera was a tool, with which he successfully tested the boundaries of what was possible with human locomotion.

Tags: Animal movement, Bird Movement, Chronophotography, Eadweard Muybridge, Étienne-Jules Marey, Giacomo Balla, Great Masters, Harold Edgerton, Human movement, Locomotion, Lumière Brothers, Marcel Duchamp, Marta Braun, motion, movement, November 2016, Pantographe, Smoke, Thomas Edison