Étienne-Jules Marey

Although his chronophotographic gun and related devices contributed significantly to the development of moving-image technology, Étienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904) was first and foremost a physician.[1] He was Professor of Physiology at the Collège de France, and his laboratory and testing station, known as the Station Physiologique, was supported by public funds earmarked for education (see Figure B1.1 [2]). There, he studied the working of human muscles and the movement of the human body itself, and behind all of his inventions was a single scientific goal: to overcome the inadequacies of the naked eye in observing the phenomenon of human motion. Working with this goal in mind, he created—serendipitously, for the most part—some marvelous and instructive photographic effects.

Figure B1.2, for example, reveals the mechanics and results of one of Marey’s techniques. He clothed a subject all in black, except for thin white bands to show the movements of the arms and legs and bright metal buttons to indicate pressure on the joints. Photographing the subject in motion against a black backdrop, he produced images which, though suggesting works of abstract art, are designed to highlight the working of human muscle and skeletal structure by eliminating the exterior mass of the subject’s body from the image. Later, he experimented with extreme slow motion and combined the capabilities of the motion picture camera and the microscope in a series of “cinemicrographic” studies.[3]

Whatever Marey’s own goals, however, his chronophotographic apparatus turned out to be crucial to the development of the motion picture camera, and the impact of his work on aesthetic activities, though incidental, is not without significance. For example, Marcel Duchamp’s famous painting Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 (Figure B1.3) superimposes successive planes of movement in a way that echoes the multiple-exposure photography achieved by Marey in the photograph in Figure B1.2. Much like Duchamp, the artists of the Futurist movement, who celebrated the dynamic qualities that modern life shared with the machine, appreciated Marey’s amalgam of scientific and artistic methods.[4]

See the moving picture


        Norman McLaren, Pas de deux,

                       Canada, 1967

Pas de Deux, made by the Canadian animator and experimental filmmaker Norman McLaren in 1967 (Figure B1.4), used multiple-image photography to get a striking effect that’s also highly reminiscent of Marey’s images.[5] Between 1939 and 1958, the American photographer Berenice Abbott made a series of photographs to demonstrate the laws of physics (see Figure B1.4); like those of Marey, the results are visually arresting. Remember, however, that Marey’s goal was to produce a means of studying the principles underlying human movement; it was not, like the goals of artists whose work reminds us of Marey’s photographic experiments, to explore means of representing movement in images, whether still or moving.

Most of Marey’s earliest devices (dating from the mid-1850s) were designed to further his study of the heart and blood circulation, and his work on animal locomotion didn’t actually begin in earnest until the late 1860s. One of his non-chronophotographic inventions in this field, an apparatus for recording the time of muscle contractions, was used by physiologists up until the 1950s. The Institut Marey was established in Paris in the 1890s, and researchers there followed up on his work to develop high-speed films for microscopic and X-ray anaylsis. Marey’s contributions to the development of apparatus for chronophotographic reproduction are discussed in more detail in Chapter 2.1.

[1] See Marta Braun, Picturing Time: The Work of Étienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904) (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1995). See also Russell Naughton, ed., “Étienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904),” The Pioneers: An Anthology, at (accessed May 24, 2016), who focuses on Marey’s interest in capturing images of birds and insects in flight, offering several contemporary drawings and articles; Laurent Mannoni, “Étienne-Jules Marey,” Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema (British Film Institute, 1996), at (accessed May 24, 2016), who provides a biographical sketch tracing Marey's collaborations with fellow inventor Georges Demenÿ; and Charl Lucassen, “Étienne-Jules Marey,” Chronophotographical Projections (2000), at (accessed October 8, 2004); “The Human Motor: Marey—Mapping the Body," at (accessed March 29, 2000). See also Chapter 2:1.

[2] For Figure B1.1: Quoted by M. Mulcahy, “Chronophotohraphy,” Building Better Humans, at (accessed May 18, 2006).

[3] For demonstrations of Marey's moving pictures, go to Deborah Hustic, “Body Cinema: Films by Etienne-Jules Marey—Vintage Motion Capturing,” Body Pixel (February 1, 2011), at (accessed May 24, 2016).

[4] See H.W. Janson and Anthony F. Janson, History of Art. Volume II, 5th ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, and New York: Prentice Hall and Harry N. Abrams, 1995), pp. 758-59, 776. See also Movements of Air: Étienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904), Photographer of Fluids (Paris: Musée d’Orsay, 2006) at (accessed May 24, 2016).

[5] See William Moritz, “Animation in the Post-Industrial Era,” The Oxford History of World Cinema, ed. Geoffrey Nowell Smith (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1996), p. 552.

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