Eadweard Muybridge, Elephant Walking

Making Modernism: Muybridge and Marey

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Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) and Étienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904) are important figures in the history of photography.

They are mentioned often enough, but where exactly they might stand in that history, or in any other history, is a different matter. Normally they are introduced as innovators who opened up the path to moving pictures – Marey especially, even if he was pipped at the post by the Lumière brothers. Muybridge is known as the racier of the two, with a reputation as a showman and self-promoter. His seriates (as they were known in the 1880s) of walking and gesturing figures are often reproduced as emblems of modern times: representative, perhaps, of the production line and of the excesses of ethnology – its liking for specimens and measurement. Marey, on the other hand, was something of a recluse. His private papers were destroyed on his death, and biographers only have the considerable scientific work to go on. His invariably elegant studies of movement, mostly taken at the Physiological Station set up in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris in 1884, impressed the Futurists and Marcel Duchamp around 1910 and secured him a walk-on part in the history of avant-garde. Conversely, he also assured the avant-garde of a mention in the history of science. It is probably that their importance has been recognised but misidentified.

Marey trained as a physician and became a researcher in physiology. He opposed symptomatology, the piecemeal study of organs as entities. Instead he emphasised systems, such as the circulation of blood. His idea was that if you could make records and charts of systems in action you could then examine these for significant irregularities. In the late 1870s he began to investigate movement in terms of its external traces: the flight of birds for instance, and the running of horses. The pictures we are familiar with are of overlaps, multiple exposures taken on a single plate. To clarify matters a moving figure might be taken dressed in white against a dark background. The intention was to secure a continuous trace which could be studied to show the workings of ankles and knees, for example.

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Published in Photoworks Issue 14, 2010
Commissioned by Photoworks

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