Marey's Starring Role in Developing Film

By Michael Torosian

The Globe and Mail, 21 August 1993

The name Etienne-Jules Marey may not resonate with the familiarity of Thomas Edison, George Eastman or Eadweard Muybridge in discussions of the invention of motion pictures in the late 19th century, but a new book entitled Picturing Time by Marta Braun (professor in the Film and Photography Department at Ryerson Polytechnic University in Toronto), asserts and convincingly argues that he was the linchpin in the evolution of the process.

Born in the Burgundy region of France in 1830, Marey displayed a remarkable mechanical aptitude in his youth and wanted to pursue a technical education, but ultimately deferred to his father's wishes and went into medicine. As fortune would have it his private practice failed and he turned to research where he was able to combine his natural talents and formal training in the fledgling field of physiology, a science which enabled him to consider "life processes as mechanical processes." An adherent of "positivism," through research he sought to discover "the laws that govern the phenomenon of life." Philosophy and science merged for Marey in what would be his life's work, the study of motion.

His earliest experiments employed mechanical devices, but upon seeing the motion photographs of the American Muybridge (the famous horse sequence made to resolve the debate over the positions of the animal's legs during a gallop) he recognized photography as the path to achieving his scientific ambition, "to make visible what the unaided senses could not perceive." Over a period of twenty-three years, using cameras of his own devising, he created an encyclopedic collection of motion studies of humans, insects, animals and wave configurations, that was to add profoundly to the knowledge of fields as diverse as aviation and industrial labour and influence philosophical and psychological concepts of time.

Marey's contribution to the evolution of motion pictures was an outgrowth of these innovative experiments. His studies were made on single sheets and later ribbons of film (the obvious precursor of modern reel film) at precise intervals, governed by a shutter and film advance mechanism he invented whose principle is still today the defining characteristic of both movie cameras and projectors. Muybridge may have ushered in the era of motion photography, but with the fabrication of his "chronophotographic" device, Marey had created what was in principle the first movie camera.

Braun's fascination with Marey was kindled by her interest in early motion picture photography and ignited by the news, in 1979, of the discovery of four crates containing Marey's glass negatives and scientific papers which had been hidden away since 1904 in the rafters of a building in Paris. In view of the fact that Marey's personal papers were destroyed after his death in accordance with his wishes, this discovery was the motherlode for a new serious scholarship.

Braun has provided a meticulous catalogue of Marey's work and a detailed chronicle of his career. It is largely a history of esoteric scientific experimentation, which Braun relates so deftly (aided by illustrations of every salient aspect of his work) that the processes are intelligible to the layman and the ingenuity, resourcefulness, determination and vision of Marey are abundantly apparent. It's an admirable balancing act; scholarly writing imbued with a sense of awe.

Braun insistently reminds us, not only of the magnitude of Marey's accomplishments and the recognition he enjoyed in his lifetime, but ultimately the obscurity that history consigned the man to. Ironically, she concedes it could hardly have been otherwise. Marey never commercially exploited his inventiveness; his primary concern was knowledge, not application. However, almost half of the book is devoted to what Braun entitles "Marey's Legacy" in which she contends that the dawn of the 20th century was permeated with Marey's influence. His essays on flight are characterized as "the firm foundation for all aeronautical research in France and abroad" and his motion photographs are credited with an impact on the fine arts "greater than any scientific work has had since the discovery of perspective in the Renaissance." This may sound like hyperbole intended to ameliorate the neglect Marey has suffered at the hands of time, but as Braun takes the measure of modern aesthetic philosophy, culture and industry she constructs an argument of remarkably compelling authority. Picturing Time becomes much more than scholarship and polemics; it is an act of devotion to the memory of a 19th century man whose colleagues once called "a gifted tinkerer."

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