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landmark in the history of photography

MAREY, ETIENNE-JULES. Gull in flight

Marey, 1886

Albumen silver print (168 x 47 mm), mounted, manuscript caption on mount “No 29.” On the verso are manuscript notes concerning the scale of the print. Very good condition.

This classic Marey photograph of a gull in flight is a landmark in the history of photography.

“One of the nineteenth century’s premier scientific investigators of the phenomenon of movement, Marey designed a process that could make multiple exposures on a single photographic plate in rapid succession. This innovation allowed him to capture the visible traces of an entire motion in regular intervals and to study that action at a level of detail not attainable by earlier photographic technologies. With this remarkable image of a bird in flight, Marey has produced a sequence of the individual moments that comprise a continuous movement, freezing for contemplation and study the fleeting contortions of the animal’s wings, not visible to the naked eye” (Metropolitan Museum of Art).

In December 1878 La Nature published reproductions of Eadweard Muybridge’s series of photographs of horses in motion. Marey asked the publisher, Gustave Tissandier to put him in touch with Muybridge, and their letters appeared in the journal. He hoped Muybridge would be able to help him realize his dream of capturing the flight of birds in photographs. When Muybridge could not achieve what Marey desired, in 1882 the French scientist devised his fusil photographique, a photographic gun that made twelve sequential images on a rotating glass disk. Crucially, Marey then developed a fixed-plate camera in which successive portions of the glass were exposed and masked, creating systematic multiple exposures on a single plate. “Unlike the motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge, who depicted movement as a series of discrete moments on separate, sequential negatives, Marey’s analyses of motion are characterized by multiple exposures on a single photographic plate” (Metropolitan Museum of Art).

Marey’s chronophotography, as he called it, reached its apogee with his images of birds in flight. He split motion into its component parts and froze it in time on a single plate, marking a new era in visual representation. “We read what happens within the frame as happening at a single instant in time and in a single space. Marey’s photographs shattered that unity; viewers now had to unravel the successive parts of the work in order to understand that they were looking not at several men moving in single file, but at a single figure successively occupying a series of positions in space. … The result, a vision that goes beyond sight, was a new reality” (Braun, Picturing Time). Marey’s photographs revealed the nature of animal and human motion, led to the invention of cinema, and inspired the work of modern artists from Duchamp to the Futurists.

RARE. “Because his photographs were either kept in his laboratory at the Physiological Station or sent to those agencies like the municipal council of Paris that funded his work, they were rarely to be found in the hands of collectors or in museums” (Braun).

Provenance: Gaston Tissandier, publisher and editor of the science journal La Nature, aeronaut, science writer, and leading advocate of science and technology in France.

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