Motion and time

Eadweard Muybridge (left) and Etienne-Jules Marey

In 1830 two men were born who were to have an immense influence on the creation of cinematography, both technically and aesthetically. Both died in the same year, 1904. Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne-Jules Marey are recognised as the twin pillars on which the art and science of motion pictures were formed. It is a measure of the greatness of their work that it is as influential, and as keenly analysed, today as it was in the late nineteenth century, when each man demonstrated in his particular way how photography could capture and reconstitute movement, and in doing so might anatomise time itself.

From Muybridge’s cabinet card series The Horse in Motion (1878)

Animal locomotion
Muybridge is the better known figure. His life and career are described in Eadweard Muybridge: The Kingston Museum Bequest, edited by Stephen Herbert. He was born Edward James Muggeridge in Kingston-upon-Thames. In 1851, he emigrated to America, working originally as a bookseller (changing his name to Muygridge), then establishing himself as a photographer in San Francisco. In 1867 he began photographing the scenery of the Yosemite, and altered his surname to Muybridge. He produced stereoscopic views (adjacent photographs giving a sense of depth when seen through a twin-glass viewer) and some outstanding panoramas of San Francisco. His 1878 thirteen-panel panorama of San Francisco is reproduced in Herbert’s book, and discussed with critical intensity in Rebecca Solnit’s illuminating biography, Motion Studies: Time, Space and Eadweard Muybridge.

Muybridge gained a high reputation as a photographer. In 1872, he was approached by the President of the Central Pacific Railroad, Leland Stanford, who invited him to photograph a horse moving at speed, in order to determine an answer to an age-old question of whether all of the hooves of a trotting horse left the ground at the same time. The wet collodion photographic process of the time generally required an exposure of a number of seconds, useless for instantaneous photography, but in April 1873 Muybridge announced that he had succeeded in photographing Stanford’s horse ‘Occident’ in motion.

After a melodramatic period where Muybridge shot dead his wife’s lover (he was acquitted on the grounds of justifiable homicide) and a long photographic trip to South America, he returned to the photography of action in 1877. With continued sponsorship from Stanford, Muybridge devised an ingenious system at Stanford’s farm in Palo Alto. Along the exterior of a fifty-foot white shed, he placed twelve cameras in sequence, each with a shutter of his own design which could operate at 1/1000th of a second, to be released by an electromagnetic catch triggered by the snapping of threads stretched across the track in front of the shed as a horse galloped past. The result was a sequence of twelve photographs recorded over half a second.

Muybridge’s work excited considerable interest among in the scientific and photographic community, overturning centuries-held assumptions about the representation of motion. In 1880 Muybridge began started touring America and Europe with a projector he called a Zoopraxiscope (it was around this time that he changed his first name to the floridly Anglo-Saxon Eadweard). These were not cinema projections, but reproductions in motion of silhouettes, and later colour pictures, taken from his sequence photographs, painted around the edge of a glass disc.

In 1884, Muybridge began a two-year programme of sequence photography at the University of Pennsylvania, now using a dry plate process with superior camera apparatus. He took over 20,000 photographs of human and animals in motion, following the model established in Palo Alto of having his subjects pass before twelve cameras in parallel sequence. 781 plates were published in 1887 as the famous Animal Locomotion. Muybridge returned to Britain and to Kingston in 1894. He bequeathed his works to the Royal Borough of Kingston, and Herbert’s beautifully illustrated book is a catalogue of this collection, published to coincide with the great photographer’s centenary. It is the ideal introduction to Muybridge’s work.

Marey’s falling cat, 1894

Photographing time
Among those greatly excited by Muybridge’s sequence photographs when they were first published in 1878 was the French physiologist Etienne-Jules Marey. Marey was a more private man, and his work is less well-known except among aficionados of the roots of cinematography and the science of analysis of motion through photography which Marey established, chronophotography (‘photographing time’). Less has been written about Marey, but he is the subject of an outstanding cultural biography by Marta Braun, Picturing Time, which is notable also for its radical thinking about Muybridge’s scientific achievement.

Born in Beaune, France, Marey studied medicine in Paris. He became fascinated with the study of movement, and began to develop graphical instruments for studying the movement of humans, horses, birds and insects. He published the results of his studies in La Machine Animale in 1873. Its diagrammatic analyses of the motions of a horse in turn caught the interest of Leland Stanford, who set Muybridge to the tasking of producing sequential photographs of a horse in motion. Muybridge’s published work in turn inspired Marey to employ photography in his studies of movement.

Marey admired Muybridge’s work, but felt that the images of birds were too imprecise for his own research needs (Marey’s studies of the mechanisms of flight would inspire the coming generation of aviation experimenters, including the Wright brothers). In 1882 he devised a photographic ‘gun’, capable of producing twelve exposures a second, followed by a chronophotographic fixed plate camera. Marey established the Station Physiologique in the Bois de Boulogne, with funding from the City of Paris, and began a detailed programme of experiments in photographing motion. Unlike Muybridge, who took photographs in sequence, Marey’s aim was to capture the successive images of motion on a single plate. In 1888 Marey began taking his photographic images on strips of sensitised paper, moved along intermittently by means of an electromagnet, thereby taking another step in the process to what would become true cinematography. In 1890 he replaced paper with celluloid film.

Marey continued to produce photographic studies of movement, with results that were of undoubted scientific worth, but which also demonstrated high aesthetic values. As with Muybridge, in the mystery of captured motion, Marey found poetry as well as science. Marey did not produce motion picture films as such (he parted with his talented assistant Georges Demeny in 1894 when the latter became too interested in commercialising the process), though the actions – albeit very brief – can be projected. He published a summation of his life’s work as Le Mouvement in 1894, while the experimental work was continued by Lucien Bull, Pierre Nogues and others at the Institut Marey, including experiments in high-speed cinematography and cinemicroscopy.

Detail from plate 408 of Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion

Art and science
Muybridge and Marey inspired one another’s work, but in their methods and in their ambitions they were quite different. The chief practical difference was that Muybridge took his photographs in sequence, while Marey took his on a single plate (before turning to paper and film strips). The difference was more profound than it might first appear. Muybridge’s reasons for choosing to shoot twelve images in succession were probably determined by his ambitions as a presenter. As Herbert argues, the use of twelve camera suggests that he was from the outset thinking of animating the results through a zoetrope (a motion picture ‘toy’ with vertical viewing slits arranged around a drum). His aim was to reconstitute and to reanimate animal locomotion.

Marey’s intention was to freeze motion, to capture a precise moment in time. His aim was not to reanimate, but to dissect motion through the camera. His motives were purely scientific, though their realisation goes beyond science. Muybridge, however, was no scientist. Despite his being bracketed with the scientific pioneers of cinematography, and despite the scientific committee that oversaw his Pennsylvania work, Muybridge was a visionary and an artist, and one who bent science to meet his artistic ends. As Marta Braun has shown, Muybridge’s photographic sequences are not always the pure records of motion that they would seem to be. She calculates that some 40% of the plates in Animal Locomotion do not adhere to Muybridge’s avowed scientific method of photographing lateral action in twelve numbered sequences, with twenty-four foreshortened views of each subject. Muybridge had considerable problems with his cameras, as his notebooks indicate. To compensate for failed pictures, he would leave out photographs in some sequences, repeat images, restage some individual shots, or put together shots from more than one photographic session. The sequential structure leads us into believing there is faultless continuity, when this often not the case.

Muybridge’s work was that of the imagination. His interest in any subject was, argues Braun, seldom defined by the study of motion. Muybridge’s choice of subjects, with its emphasis on nudity, a marked delineation of male and female roles, mini-dramas enacted through the sequences (a mother greets her child, one woman pours water over another), and the use of Muybridge himself as a subject, all suggest the acting out of some inner compulsion that makes Muybridge the artist as fascinating a subject as his individual studies.

Marey’s Saut de l’homme au canotier (c1887)

Time regained
What unites Marey and Muybridge is the representation of time. The management of time, as well as its philosophical underpinning, were key preoccupations of the late nineteenth century. Capitalist society was driven by time – so much time for work, so much time for leisure, calibrated in hours, minutes and seconds, enshrined in railway timetables and factory work schedules, and recognised most fully by the international conference on time standards in 1884 which divided the world into twenty-four time zones and established Greenwich as the zero meridian.

At the same time, philosopher Henri Bergson was arguing for the unknowability of time, for time as flux, for private, subjective time. The work of Marey and Muybridge falls into both camps. In the desire to capture action on a single photographic plate, Marey was trying to anatomise time, to pinpoint a precise moment. His intention was the study of movement, but, as Mary Ann Doane argues in The Emergence of Cinematic Time, his deeper interest was in what is revealed through the instant of time. The filmstrip, which both Marey and Muybridge’s work prefigured, demonstrates this anatomisation of time. An action appears continuous, but it is marshalled into separate and static frames. Projection then stimulates the brain to reconstitute the illusion of movement.

In stopping time, Marey and Muybridge revealed its essential nature as a personal experience. Film captures and dissects time into a succession of individual images. It preserves and reproduces time, making that which takes place in one space and time renewable elsewhere. Marey, who sought so urgently to measure things as they were, was no conscious advocate of subjective reality, yet his work portrays not time itself but the idea of time. Muybridge, under the mask of science, expressed a deeper need for narrative and imaginative construction. Together, they inspired the cinema, which has been mesmerised by the illusory nature of its depiction of reality ever since.

I originally wrote this article for Viewfinder journal no. 57, December 2004. It was written to mark the centenaries of the deaths of Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne-Jules Marey, considering the meaning of their work in the light of recent publications on the two men. It is reproduced here, with new illustrations, on the 120th anniversary of their deaths, with the kind permission of Learning on Screen.


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