Notebook, 1993-


Modernism- A Passion for the Trace
[A Review]

Marey's work . . . . as an example of 19th-century positivism and as a precursor of 20th-century modernism . . . . '

The trace ". . . . a simultaneous overtaking of space and time."

The 19th-century French scientist, inventor and photographic innovator Étienne-Jules Marey has long been consigned to the margins of the history of photography. Compared with Eadweard James Muybridge, a contemporary whose stop-action images of human and animal locomotion are frequently reproduced and exhibited, he is a virtual cipher. One might suspect that this disparity is because Muybridge made better pictures than Marey, especially since their subject matter and interests often overlapped. Or perhaps it is so because Muybridge, who murdered his wife's lover in addition to taking photographs of everything from Yosemite Valley to galloping horses, led a more intriguing life.

Neither supposition is accurate. Marey was never a professional photographer like Muybridge, but the photographs he produced between 1882 and 1901 are not only unexpectedly beautiful, but also useful in a sense that Muybridge's pictures are not. And Marey's career was phenomenally fruitful and varied; he had an effect on physiology, aviation, physical education, industrial management, cinema and 20th-century art in profound and often startling ways.

Trained as a physiologist, Marey dedicated his life to finding ways to record the workings of the body. His first invention was an ungainly strap-on machine that charted the pulse. This was the first "graphic inscriptor" used in modern medicine, according to Marta Braun - a professor in the department of film and photography at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute in Toronto - whose "Picturing Time: The Work of Étienne-Jules Marey [1830-1904]" is a paragon of judicious historical reassessment. The camera, Ms. Braun argues convincingly, was merely another recording device for Marey, albeit one with the essential ability to chart movement through both space and time.

Marey's experiments with what he called "chromophotography" led him to develop cameras with oscillating shutters controlled by clockwork-style gears, so that each exposure occurred at a precise interval from the one before it and the one after it. Despite the practical difficulties of getting sufficient exposure and contrast to illustrate human movement clearly, Marey persevered with stop-motion photography for some 20 years. Many of his pictures are masterpieces of economy, capturing all the phases of a complex activity like pole-vaulting within the confines of a single frame and possessing what the art historian Aaron Scharf has called a "poetic force."

There is no disputing that Muybridge's early motion studies of horses, done under the patronage of the railroad tycoon Leland Stanford, predate Marey's first involvement with photography. Indeed, it was Muybridge's visit to Paris in 1881 that inspired the Burgundy-born physiologist to develop his one stop-action cameras. But whereas Muybridge kept one eye on the camera and one on the marketplace, Marey was the model of a disinterested scientist. Marey intuitively recognized what Ms. Braun reveals as the scandal of Muybridge's corpus of locomotion studies: they are so full of gaps, rearrangements and seemingly willful deceptions that they are useless as objective data. Marey's chromophotographs, on the other hand, scrupulously adhere to the scientific method of the time.

Marey can also claim to have developed the first workable motion picture projector, which he devised as a means of synthesizing the aspects of motion he took such pains to isolate. [As Ms. Braun's recounting of 19th-century experiments with pre-cinematic devices like the phenakistoscope and zoopraxiscope suggests, Marey, like Thomas Edison and the Lumières, was only one of several "fathers" of the cinema.] In addition, his interest in how birds fly led him to experiments that paved the way for the Wright brothers' flight, and his motion studies of athletes created new methods of physical training and inspired subsequent studies of how workers perform tasks in industrial settings.

"Picturing Time" is a first-rate model of what is called the new art history or, more modestly, contexturalist art history. While much of it is devoted to a well-researched and presented biography of Marey, its importance lies in Ms. Braun's insistence on treating Marey's images as more than esthetic tokens. Marey, in her view, was not an autonomous producer of marvelous, revealing pictures but a representative of the 19th-century positivist faith in objective measurement and recording. Thus his photographs are more complex and interesting than heretofore imagined.

This is not to say that Marey's pictures had no influence on the art world. As Ms. Braun demonstrates, Cubist, Futurists and Dadaists all made use of his images in their attempts to forge a new perspective reflective of modernity. She says that the impact of Marey's pictures on early modernist artists was "probably greater than any scientific work... since the discovery of perspective in the Renaissance," citing Marcel Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase" and Giacomo Balla's "Girl Running on a Balcony" as two well-known examples. Just because artists used Marey's pictures as models, however, one should not be tempted to conclude that Marey intended his photographs as works of art.

If Ms. Braun's thoughtful and well-organized explication of Marey's achievements and influences exemplifies the virtues of the contextualist method of art history, Fran┘ois Dagognet's "Étienne-Jules Marey: A Passion for the Trace" is a model of most of the method's faults. The title perhaps is sufficient warning, but Mr. Dagognet, who teachers epistemology at the University of Lyons, is capable of overheated, undocumented generalizations apparently beyond the remedial grasp of any editor or translator. Contextualism? Here is Mr. Dagognet on the impact on Futurism of what he calls "Mareyism": 'Marey made it possible for the avant-garde to become receptive to new values: instead of escape into the past, the unreal or the dream, there was the double cult of machines and their propulsion... One could hear the beating and hum of Marey's motors as well as his hearts. This was the double idolatry of powerful machines and their speed - the simultaneous overtaking of space and time!"

Just how Marey's photographs "made it possible" for the avant-garde to enter the machine age is left to the reader. But while Mr. Dagognet's enthusiastic text is no match for Ms. Braun's detailed arguments and scholarship, he agrees with her about the importance of Marey's work - as an example of 19th-century positivism and as a precursor of 20th-century modernism.

[Grundberg, Andy. The Scientist Who Took Pictures. In The New York Times Book Review, New York: New York Times. 4/25/93. p. 35.]



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