Musée d'Orsay: Movements of Air Etienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904) Photographer of Fluids

Movements of Air Etienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904) Photographer of Fluids

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2004

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photograph
Etienne-Jules MareyTriangular prism presenting one of its bases to the air stream, fourth and lastversion of the smoke machine equipped with 57 channels© Cinémathèque française
Etienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904) - physiologist, doctor, biomechanics engineer and inventor in 1882 of chronophotography, a technique anticipating cinematography. He devoted three years at the end of his life, from 1899 to 1909, to photographing movements of air.

The beauty and enigmatic character of his shots of smoke are striking to today's visitors, but they also raise numerous questions. Why were these pictures produced  ? What was the purpose of the research and with what techniques were they conducted  ? Why did he turn to instant photography at a time (1899-1902) when chronophotography and cinematography were already commonly used  ? To understand this, one has to go back to the origins of the technique that dominated the physiologist's life and work: the graphic method.

This consisted in transcribing on paper or on a sensitive surface the forces exerted on a body in motion, whether it be living or inanimate.

photograph
Etienne-Jules MareyTriangular prism presenting one of its angles to the air stream, fourth and last version of the smoke machine equipped with 57 channels© Cinémathèque française
As Marey stated in La méthode graphique dans les sciences expérimentales (1878), this method allows observing and measuring the "relation of space to time that is the essence of motion". Using transcribing devices, the traces of movements or phenomena that human senses are most often unable to perceive were captured for the first time.

In the 1890's, after studying fish locomotion using chronophotography, Marey sought to understand how a liquid reacts to the passing of any object. He laid small silver-coloured balls made of wax and resins in water agitated by means of a propeller. The sunlight was reflected in these tiny bright bodies in suspension, and the effects caused by an obstacle set on the trajectory of the current were thus recorded at a rate of 42 images per second. It was this device that gave him the idea of making a similar experiment with wisps of air produced by a wind tunnel.

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