The phased movement of Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2” (1912) and the frenetic action embodied in Futurism were both inspired by the 19th-century photography of scientist Étienne-Jules Marey. Revelations: Experiments in Photography at the Science Museum in London explores the influence on art of Marey’s work as well as other early scientific photography.
Alongside images from the National Photography Collection by Eadweard Muybridge, Henry Fox Talbot, and Berenice Abbott, Marey’s name is more obscure. Ben Burbridge of the University of Sussex, who co-curated Revelations with Greg Hobson, curator of photographs at the National Media Museum, notes the words of Sir Jonathan Miller from the opening of the show:
Unlike Eadweard Muybridge, who had no interest in science, Étienne Jules Marey was a qualified doctor and there would have been no Italian Futurist movement without his extraordinary influence. Marey’s representation of locomotion and the movement of animals and human beings is wonderfully exhibited here — perhaps for the first time publicly. There are very few exhibitions where you can see his genius.
Muybridge and the Frenchman Marey were contemporaries exhilarated by the possibilities of studying motion through photography, with very distinct approaches. Marey was a physiologist, and more interested in researching anatomical movement than professional photographer Muybridge.
In the 1880s, he was an innovator of the chronophotography technique of taking multiple successive images, usually on the same print, to show overlapping and kinetic motion, unlike the separate freeze-frames of Muybridge.The style would influence Futurist painters like Giacomo Balla, demonstrated in his “Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash” (1912). And unlike Muybridge, Marey shot his photos with a gun.
Marey’s photographic gun had a revolving cylinder with photographic plates, so he could take aim and shoot through 12 frames a second. The 1882 invention influenced the motion picture camera, and the 1930s motion studies of Harold Edgerton. Marey trained his barrel on birds in flight, running horses, and people in motion, and would move around seagulls and other animals to see them from all angles. Based on these images, he made bronzes showing in three dimensions this movement. Later he concentrated on the even more ephemeral movement of air, constructing a wind tunnel for his tests in 1899.
Marey died in 1904, but those first decades of 20th-century visual art reverberated with his research. Last year, artist Dario Robleto was inspired by Marey’s early recordings of heartbeats, later digitized by Patrick Feaster, and incorporated them into an installation called The Boundary of Life Is Quietly Crossed at the Menil Collection in Houston.
Earlier this year, the Science Museum hosted Drawn by Light, an exhibition with some of the oldest photographic images from the Royal Photographic Society. With Revelations, it is exciting to see a continued exploration of early photography, and its wider influence on our perception of time, movement, and the world around us. Below are more photographs by Marey and both historic scientific and contemporary work from Revelations. After it closes at the Science Museum in September, the exhibition will open in November at the National Media Museum in Bradford, England.
Revelations: Experiments in Photography continues at the Science Museum’s Media Space (Exhibition Road, London) through September 13.