Marey and chronophotography

Thierry Lefebvre
UFR de Biologie et des Sciences de la Nature
Université Paris 7
2 place Jussieu
75251 Paris cedex 05

Novembre 2005

Etienne-Jules Marey, who pioneered and popularized the « graphic method », did not take much interest in photography before December 1878. He was 48 at that time and at the peak of his scientific career. He was a member of the Académie des sciences and of the Académie de médecine, a Professor at the Collège de France, and the author of a number of books and articles, the most famous of which, entitled The Graphic Method in the Experimental Sciences and More Specifically in Physiology and Medicine, had just been published by Masson.

On December 14, 1878, Gaston Tissandier published, in the weekly popular science magazine La Nature, an article entitled « The gait of horses represented by means of instant photography » [1]. The editor of this layman-oriented journal, the circulation of which was then of some 15,000 copies, presented the work of Eadweard Muybridge, the Anglo-American photographer, until then never published in France.

The origin of Muybridge’s research is well documented. In 1874, Marey’s previous work, The Animal Machine, was translated into English. It then reached Leland Stanford, the former Governor of California. This very wealthy man was extremely interested in the figures representing trotting and galloping horses that the results of the graphic method had inspired Marey to draw. As Muybridge declared in February 1879, « Reading the famous book on the animal mechanism inspired Governor Leland with the idea that it was possible to solve the problem of locomotion through photography. Mr Stanford discussed it with me and I agreed to support him in this work » [2].

In June 1878, on Stanford’s ranch in Palo Alto, Muybridge thought up a particularly innovative device allowing "electro-photographic investigation". A galloping or trotting horse successively triggered the shutters of twelve cameras previously set out along a ten-meter-long track. The result was twelve pictures representing the various phases of the horse’s movements. These largely corroborated Marey’s inductions.

The pictures appeared for the first time in France in La Nature.

Naturally, Marey was fascinated by the reproduced photographs. As early as December 28, the weekly magazine published a letter from the Académicien to Gaston Tissandier : « My dear friend, I greatly admire Mr Muybridge’s instant photographs, which you published in your latest but one issue of La Nature. Could you put me in touch with the author ? I would like to ask for his help with some physiological problems that other methods do not seem to solve. For the flight of birds for instance, I have been dreaming of some sort of photographic gun which would catch birds in an attitude, or better even in a succession of attitudes, displaying the successive phases of the movements of their wings.[...] » [3]

Thus, as Laurent Mannoni notes in his very famous book Etienne-Jules Marey, la mémoire de l’œil [4], the eminent scientist « made his entrance into chronophotography » thanks to what was, at the end of the 19th century, the most important French journal of popular science.

On March 22, 1879, again in the journal La Nature, Captain Eugène Vassel outlined the famous « photographic rifle » that Marey wanted to see. « The trigger works as in a rifle, but, instead of acting on the hammer, it acts on a rectangular shutter pierced by a circular window in its centre and sliding in a groove [...]. » [5]

Three years elapsed, however, before Marey could produce a satisfactory prototype. In the mean time, the physiologist, while pursuing his research in various other fields, exchanged several letters with Muybridge. The two men finally met in Paris in September 1881. The meeting sharpened the physiologist’s interest in photography.

Marey developed his photographic rifle in Naples, where he resided for a part of the year, between January and February 1882. He officially announced his achievement at the Académie des sciences, first on March 27, then on April 10, when he went to the podium to present the outlines of his invention; successive photographs of the flight of a seagull were projected onto a screen.

« The barrel of this rifle is a tube that contains a photographic lens », Marey explained. « At the back, firmly attached to the butt, there is a broad cylindrical breech containing a clockwork. When one presses the trigger of the gun, the clockwork starts, setting into motion the various pieces of the device. A central axis, making 12 revolutions per second, drives all the parts of the contraption. The most important of these parts is an opaque disc pierced by a narrow window. This disc works as a shutter and only lets the light from the lens through twelve times per second, for 1/720th of a second each time. » [6] There was a photographic plate behind the shutter, « either circular or octagonal », which rotated jerkily but regularly. Twelve images were successively imprinted on the periphery of the plate.

Interesting though it was, Marey was not fully satisfied with his photographic rifle yet. The photographs that it took were too small, rather dull, and sometimes difficult to distinguish. Moreover, there were frequent and frustrating technical difficulties with the device. This is why the fixed plate chronophotographic camera was developed. Marey presented it to his colleagues of the Académie des sciences three months later, on July 3, 1882.

As Laurent Mannoni writes, this apparatus consisted of « a traditional camera, but slightly modified and equipped with a rotating disc. The window of this shutter can be enlarged or reduced so as to adjust the time exposure in accordance with the brightness of the light and with the angular speed of the disc. With a reduced window and a slow rotation, the images are distant from one another. They are closer when the rotation is faster. The disc is powered by a spring motor or a weight motor, and a small shutter opens or closes the exposure. » [7]

After a few months as the head of the Station physiologique in the Parc des Princes, Marey had the walls and ceiling of a hangar hung with black velvet. A man dressed in white and lit by daylight would walk or run, and all the phases of his passage would be inscribed on the photographic plate, as if by magic. This extremely appealing imagery was soon popularized in La Nature, among other journals. Its influence on future trends in modern art (futurism, Duchamp, etc) was to be considerable.

In December 1882, Marey asked Georges Demenÿ, his new assistant, to « buy for the laboratory two tight-fitting costumes similar to those clowns wear, one white, one black, with gloves and heel-less shoes ».  [8] The photographed individual was now dressed in black and almost invisible when he moved in front of the black velvet screen. Only bright lines and points placed on his joints or along his limbs would produce an image on the photographic plate, thus producing « skeletal trajectories » similar to those envisaged some fifty years earlier by Wilhelm and Eduard Friedrich Weber in Göttingen. [9] These experiments constitute the birth of fixed-plate geometric chronophotography. Over several years, Marey and Demenÿ conducted a great number of experiments in this hangar, which became famous. Men, athletes and various animals were chronophotographed in turn and almost without respite, creating a fascinating bestiary of images.

And yet, Marey was still dissatisfied: too many movements remained inaccessible to chronophotographic investigation. Some motions, too slow, only led to blurred pictures that were difficult to decipher and even more difficult to analyse. Around the fall of 1888, the physiologist significantly improved his device. On October 29, he presented his first chronophotographic film on paper at the Académie des sciences : « I have the honor to present a ribbon of sensitized paper on which a series of images has been obtained, at the rate of twenty images per second. » [10]

The fixed plate of 1882 was then replaced with a paper ribbon, coated with a silver bromide emulsion, that unrolled in the chronophotographer’s darkroom. An electromagnet interrupted the unreeling briefly, time enough for a picture to be recorded. This process, which can be called chronophotography on a mobile roll of sensitized paper, was a direct precursor of the cinematograph. The pictures were disposed as on a modern film. Only the lateral slots were missing; they were introduced in 1889 by the American Thomas Alva Edison.

Marey soon stopped using sensitized paper, opaque and too fragile (and easily torn), in favour of celluloid, not only more supple but also transparent. With celluloid roll film chronophotography (1889), projection upon a screen was announced, but it took six years to reach a satisfying solution. Marey, as many others, failed to devise a successful process, although he did develop a (flawed) projector.

If Etienne-Jules Marey invented a device that was a precursor of the cinematograph, he was also the undisputed inventor of scientific cinema. As early as April-May 1891, in Naples, he adapted his mobile-band chronophotograph to the eyepiece of a microscope. He thus obtained several series of pictures of the « infinitely small » (as they said at the time), such as those representing the movement of vorticellae.

In the same period of time, slowing down considerably the rhythm of his chronophotograph and taking only one picture per minute, he filmed a starfish turning over. « This movement is quite slow and normally takes ten to twenty minutes; this is why a one-minute interval has to be left between two successive images if one wants the phases to be seen. » [11] This process led to time-lapse photography.

Slow-motion was also one of Marey’s initiatives. During the fall of 1894, taking his chronophotograph to 60 images per second, he analysed the fall of a cat. He went up to 100 images per second to study the minute movements of micro-organisms.

In 1898, Marey created an international organization with a view to install, next to the Station physiologique in the Parc des Princes, an institute that would be independent from the Collège de France. The Marey Institute, a private establishment subsidized by the state, was declared a non-profit organization on July 30, 1903, a few months before its founder died. Several of Marey’s students pursued the research of the master in the field of chronophotography. Lucien Bull and Pierre Noguès perfected slow motion (« chronophotography of fast movements »). Bull in particular achieved, after the Second World War, incredible rates of approximately 15,000 images per second. Joachim-Léon Carvallo perfected an original system of radio-chronophotography (coupling chronophotography with radiography).

After quite a few vicissitudes, both the Station physiologique in the Parc des Princes and the Marey Institute were eventually demolished in 1979, so that the Rolland-Garros stadium, which was considered as a priority, could be extended.


On December 28, 1895, the cinematograph of the Lumière brothers was presented in the basement of the Grand Café, boulevard des Capucines, in Paris. The success of the device was huge and, for several decades, Marey’s fundamental contribution was forgotten.

As Laurent Mannoni wrote: « the Lumière brothers did not invent the cinema as an art, an industry or a technique; neither did Marey, Edison or Demenÿ. There is no one inventor of the seventh art, but a host of more or less active researchers who, since the Renaissance, worked in different directions, without having in mind such a phenomenal future, but always with the goal of studying or re-creating movement – through drawing, optics, catoptrics, photography, etc. » [12]

Etienne-Jules Marey’s contribution was nevertheless fundamental. And he was also the undisputed inventor of fixed-plate chronophotography, a parallel mode of representation that still influences art, advertising and the sciences.


1. La Nature, n° 289, December 14, 1878, p. 23-26.
2. La Nature, n° 303, March 22, 1879, p. 246.
3. La Nature, n° 291, December 28, 1878, p. 54.
4. Laurent Mannoni, Etienne-Jules Marey, la mémoire de l’oeil, Paris, Milan, La Cinémathèque fran¸caise, Mazzotta, 1999, p. 154¬156.
5. La Nature, n° 303, March 22nd, 1879, p. 246.
6. Etienne-Jules Marey, « Emploi de la photographie instantanée pour l’analyse des mouvements chez les animaux », (Instant photography used to analyse the movements of animals), Comptes rendus hebdomadaires des séances de l’Académie des sciences, 1882, volume 94, p. 1013-1020.
7. Laurent Mannoni, op. cit., p. 164.
8. Thierry Lefebvre, Jacques Malthête, Laurent Mannoni (editors). Lettres d’Etienne-Jules Marey - Georges Demenÿ, 1880-1894. Paris, AFRHC / Bibliothèque du film, 1999, p. 88.
9. Thierry Lefebvre. « La longue marche d’Etienne-Jules Marey » [« Marey’s long walk »], La revue du praticien, 2002, tome 52, p. 705-707.
10. Etienne-Jules Marey. « Décomposition des phases d’un mouvement au moyen d’images photographiques successives, recueillies sur une bande de papier sensible qui se déroule » [« Decomposition of the various phases of a movement using successive photographic images, collected on an unrolling ribbon of sensitized paper »], Comptes rendus hebdomadaires des séances de l’Académie des sciences, 1888, tome 107, p. 677-678.
11. Etienne-Jules Marey, « La chronophotographie. Nouvelle méthode pour analyser le mouvement dans les sciences physiques et naturelles » [« Chronophotography, a new method for analysing movement in physical and natural sciences »], Revue générale des sciences pures et appliquées, November 15, 1891, p. 712.
12. Laurent Mannoni, op. cit., p.340.

© Thierry Lefebvre. Tous droits réservés.
Translation by Karine Debbasch, Université René Descartes - Paris 5