Étienne-Jules Marey

Motion-Analyses by Étienne-Jules Marey

Born in March of 1830 in Beaune, Étienne-Jules Marey was a French scientist, physiologist, and chronophotographer. The results of his work were significant for the development of aviation, cardiology, laboratory photography, cinematography, and instruments for precise measurement.

Étienne-Jules Marey traveled to Paris in 1849 and enrolled at the Faculty of Medicine to study surgery and physiology. After qualifying as a doctor in 1859, he established a small Parisian laboratory in 1864 where he studied the circulation of blood in the human body. From these studies, Marey published the 1868 “Le Mouvement dans les Fonctions de la Vie”. This book discussed the importance of recording devices in biology, Marey’s graphic method, the origin of movement, muscle contractility and elasticity, artificial stimulations of movement, and descriptions of many medical recording devices.

Beginning in 1862, Marey perfected the first elements of his graph methodology, which studied movement using recording instruments and graphs. He succeeded in analyzing through diagrams the walk of man and a horse, and the flight of birds and insects. The published results of this work, the 1873 “La Machine Animals”, led Eadweard Muybridge and Leland Stanford to pursue their own photographic researches into animal movement. 

Although Étienne-Jules Marey admired the results of Muybridge’s work done at the Palo Alto studio, he was dissatisfied with the lack of precision in Muybridge’s bird movement images. Inspired by previous photographic work done by astronomer Jules Janssen, Marey, in 1882, perfected the ‘photographic gun’ with a revolving cylinder containing photographic plates that was capable of taking twelve exposures in one second. Using this instrument, he was able to shoot multiple images of a subject quickly from different angles. Later in the same year, Muray invented the chronophotographic fixed-plate camera which was equipped with a timed shutter. 

Unlike the motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge, who depicted movement as a series of discrete moments on separate, sequential negatives, Marey’s analyses of motion, captured by his chronophotographic camera, are characterized by multiple exposures on a single photographic glass plate. He made improvements to his invention in 1888 by replacing the glass plate with a long strip of sensitized paper. Marey’s first multiple-exposure “film” on paper, produced by moving the strip intermittently in the camera by an electromagnet at the speed of twenty images a second, was presented at the Academy des Science on October 29th in 1888. 

Two years later, Étienne-Jules Marey replaced the paper strip with a transparent celluloid film ninety millimeters wide with a length of one meter or more. A pressure-plate immobilized the film; a spring restarted the film when the pressure was released. All following cameras produced were based on the principles first applied by Marey: the intermittent movement of a sensitive film behind an objective lens  and the film’s static moments corresponding with the opening of the shutter. 

Between 1890 and 1900, assisted by inventor and photographer  Georges Demenÿ, and later by photographers Lucien Bull and Pierre Nogues, Marey made a large number of motion analysis filmstrips of high aesthetic and technical quality. These filmstrips were subsequently  processed and archived by the Cinématheque Francaise, the French non-profit film organization founded in 1936, and totaled over four- hundred original negatives, a collection which included the recording of a moving hand, self-portraits of Demenÿ and Marey, and the now-famous falling cat filmstrip, taken in 1894. 

In 1894, Étienne-Jules Marey published his collective research work under the title “Le Mouvement”. Towards the end of his life, he returned to studying the movement of more abstract forms. Marey’s  last great work was the observation and photography of smoke trails, partially funded by American astronomer and inventor Samuel Pierpont Langley under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institute. In 1901 Marey built a smoke machine with fifty-eight smoke trails; this machine became one of the first aerodynamic wind tunnels. 

The founding father of technical cinematic photography, Étienne-Jules Marey died on May 15th of 1904 in Paris. His research was continued by his assistants Lucien Bull and Pierre Nogues at the Marey Institute, built at the request of the International Society of Physiology by Marey to house a commission for the control of graphic instruments dedicated to physiology.  At this institute, Bull and Nogues made microscopic, X-Ray and high-speed analysis films.

One thought on “Étienne-Jules Marey

  1. This was a very good piece, dear friend. All things well by you I assume. I am slowly coming out of my cocoon. Not a butterfly but a fat moth. ❤️Me

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