Marey, Human Motion (1900)

The use of the motion picture camera to evaluate motion had its origins in the 19th century work of photographers and physiologists, most famously in the hands of the photographer Eadweard Muybridge and the physiologist Etienne-Jules Marey. It was strongly associated with the development of photographic technologies that were increasingly sensitive to motion. The advent of this technology, and its quick democratization, particularly among scientific communities, had already prioritized motion as a kind of precious information commodity by the 1880s. The apocryphal tale of former governor of California Leland Stanford’s wining bet that horses at a gallop “flew” with all four legs off of the ground, and the subsequent proof of this physiologic truth provided by an ingenious chronophotographic technique of Muybridge’s devising, illustrated an enthusiasm and appetite for solving the mysteries of human and animal locomotion among a more general public quite early on.

Etienne-Jules Marey in particular is heralded as having essentially founded motion study, substantively setting the standards and predispositions of the field for those motion study enthusiasts who followed. Though the attraction to the motion picture camera as a way to study human motion seems self-evident, in fact, as Marta Braun has described, it was not the unfailing, unflinching ability of the camera to capture images “with a mirror-like profusion of detail” that mattered (Braun, 83). Instead, Marey found precision in the squelching of these details, to focus on visualising techniques that allowed him to relate time and space to the position of body parts in motion. For his famous homme squelette (skeleton man) sequence, Marey dressed his human subjects in “skeleton suits,” black suits with white lines placed strategically to highlight the activities of particular body parts, and filmed them in a dark room with a specially-adapted camera. The result: an absence of realist detail, exchanged for the presence of graphic data, possible under only quite specific and artificial experimental conditions. Marey’s chronophotographic experiments with the stereoscopic camera were similar. Again, a heavy-handed experimental “set” – in this case, a figure in black, adorned with a shiny material off of which light would reflect – but this time resulting in an even more “exotic calligraphy,” that further displaced the replicative, realist promise of the motion picture camera. Only by masterful manipulation, Marey seemed to suggest, could one achieve true scientific precision.

As this perhaps already suggests, the goal of Marey’s work was not simply to observe and record humans and animals in motion. Instead, Marey’s goals were finally normative. Marey’s particular devotion to the problem of distinguishing between normal and pathological gaits, then, was a call for humans to resist the widely-circulating artificial ways of walking that he raged against in the mid-19th century and to walk “naturally,” instead. The ironies here are perhaps self-evident. Marey’s “natural” gait was every bit as culturally specific as the gaits he criticised. And the methods he used to arrive at the “natural” gait were overtly artificial, requiring, to achieve maximum naturalness, maximum artifice: exacting measurement and total control. (Meyer).

Marey’s studies not only worked to construct a general norm about movement. They also specifically prioritized movement, as the source material that, when studied, would reveal the body’s more general secrets. Part and parcel of this was the general recognition that the mover did not, and could not, really know his or her own movements; experts were needed to evaluate these because both their true shape and their significance were invisible in the everyday. The implication of this was that movers were not materially aware of their own bodies, which mirrored a more basic notion, that humans did not know their own selves: psychological insight into emotional states, after all, had shown in parallel the host of neurological and psychological abnormalities that lay just beneath the surface of human behavior. These could only be brought to the surface by the psychoanalytic expert. Just so, only the motion study expert could bring forward the idealized motions of human material expression.

Motion and emotion were thus conjoined in multiple ways. Movement, and particularly gait, had been a critical way to evaluate humans for centuries. Increasingly, in the late 19th and early 20th century, the burgeoning professional areas of neurology and psychiatry began to use film to document motion, in order to demonstrate and codify disorders of the mind. This newly pricked interest in the connection between mind and motion was also far more widespread. It was a similar understanding of this critical connection that sparked the development of acting techniques. Building upon the “law of correspondence” that related movement to both physiological brains and psychological minds, these techniques reversed course, to teach actors how to more effectively convey emotion by bodily movement. CG.

Comment (LM)

The technique thus sparked with the complex link between motion and emotion – and, as you point out, between image and homogenization, between documenting and normalising. Recording certain images, leaving others out. Marey aimed to document as precisely as possible and thus distinguish pathological from normal traits, yet he also identified possible “dangers” or limitations of film as a technique to document scientific phenomena. In his personal correspondence he thus wrote

Do not enmesh me, my dear friend, in cinematography; the exercises of the ‘biograph’ are a sport quite different from those that I studied on occasion (Marey in 1902, quoted in Mannoni 2006, 32).

I was reminded of this excerpt by your remark about Marey’s aim to achieve “true scientific precision” through “masterful manipulation”. Masterful in that Marey was obsessed with precision and feared artistic frivolities: One could document, manipulate as appropriate; but had to be extremely careful not to manipulate “for the sake of it”, for the sake of art. .

Did film as a medical means of documentation contribute to the divergence between aesthetic means of documenting phenomena while simultaneously strengthening  other academic disciplines?


Marta Braun, Picturing Time: The Work of Etienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

Robin Veder, “The Expressive Efficiencies of American Delsarte and Mensendieck Body Culture” Modernism/Modernity 2010 17(4): 819-838.

Warman, Edward Barrett. Gestures and Attitudes; an Exposition of the Delsarte Philosophy of Expression, Practical and Theoretical. Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1892.

Josh Ellenbogen, Reasoned and Unreasoned Images: The Photography of Bertillon, Galton and Marey (College Park: Penn State University Press, 2008)

Oliver Gaycken, “‘The Swarming of Life: Moving Images, Education, and Views through the Microscope” Science in Context 2011 24(3), 361-380.

Hillel Schwartz, “Torque: the New Kinaesthetic of the Twentieth Century” in Jonathan Crary and Sanford Kwinter, eds. Incorporations (Zone, 1992).

Andreas Meyer, “The Physiological Circus: Knowing, Representing, and Training Horses in Motion in Nineteenth-Century France” Representations 2010 111(1): 88-120.

Andreas Mayer, “Gravida’s Gait: Tracing the Figure of a Walking Woman” Critical Inquiry 2012 38(3): 554-578.

Robin Veder, The Living Line: Modern Art and the Economy of Energy (Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 2015), 28.

Jonathan Marshall, Performing Neurology: The Dramaturgy of Dr Jean-Martin Charcot (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).