Bodies against time – Étienne-Jules Marey

In the last years of the nineteenth century French physiologist Etienne-Jules Marey finds novel ways to record and visualize the motions of the body over time. He’s not interested in the person but in the motion itself. He develops “the graphic method,” in which movement is abstracted from the individual, exists as an independent entity and, most importantly, a useful commodity.

Marey wants to understand the motions of a bird in flight, so he attaches a bird to a harness so that the movement of its wings, now hooked up to wires and levers, cause lines to be etched onto charcoal-blackened paper wrapped around a revolving cylinder. He takes multiple exposures of a runner dressed all in black except for white lines and dots that, in the final photograph, represent points in time—motion-capture technology. If the body is a complex mechanism, Marey wonders, then how can it be optimized, improved? His first client is the French army, which asks him to devise a way to make soldiers march more efficiently.

Marey’s chronophotographic gun was made in 1882, this instrument was capable of taking 12 consecutive frames a second, and the most interesting fact is that all the frames were recorded on the same picture, using these pictures he studied horses, birds, dogs, sheep, donkeys, elephants, fish, microscopic creatures, molluscs, insects, reptiles, etc. Some call it Marey’s “animated zoo”. Marey also conducted the famous study about cats landing always on their feet. He conducted very similar studies with a chicken and a dog and found that they could do almost the same. Marey also studied human locomotion. He published another book Le Mouvement in 1894.

Marey also made movies. They were at a high speed (60 images per second) and of excellent image quality. His research on how to capture and display moving images helped the emerging field of cinematography.

Towards the end of his life he returned to studying the movement of quite abstract forms, like a falling ball. His last great work was the observation and photography of smoke trails. This research was partially funded by Samuel Pierpont Langley under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution, after the two met in Paris at the Exposition Universelle (1900). In 1901 he was able to build a smoke machine with 58 smoke trails. It became one of the firstaerodynamic wind tunnels.