Film History Essentials: La Vague (1891)

(English: The Wave)

What it’s about:

An ocean wave crashes and breaks against a strangely-shaped rock formation that juts up from the water, dissolving at its base.

Why it’s essential:

Étienne-Jules Marey apparently photographed this wave during his annual trip to Naples in 1891. Recall that while he was away, his assistant Georges Demenÿ was working on the lip-reading project (which included Je Vous Aime) for the Institut National de Jeunes Sourds de Paris that would eventually lead to the fracturing of their working relationship. But that was in the future, and meanwhile Marey continued to be absorbed in his science-focused academic work.

What’s particularly interesting about this brief example of Marey’s signature chronophotography is that it is of the natural world, but not of a living thing. This is a departure both for Marey and for early pre-cinema. We have one earlier example, our very first, of motion photography capturing the passage of Venus across the sun in 1874. But this is, perhaps, the first film of a non-living subject.

Both Muybridge and Marey, the pioneers of this sort of motion photography, seem to have focused entirely on human and animal movements to this point. And of course, the pioneers of early cinema most often turned their cameras on whatever human subjects happened to be nearby for their early experiments. What, I wonder, prompted Marey to aim his unique photographic device at this scene? Was it planned, or was it taken spontaneously when something about the way the water met this particular obstacle caught his eye?

I don’t know whether this was symptom or cause of a new interest for Marey, but in 1893, he published an article in La Nature titled “Le mouvement des liquides étudié par la chronophotographie.” The article doesn’t include any of the photographs he took for the study, but he does include a fascinating drawing of the device he created for his purposes (shown at right). I note particularly the way he has shrouded the lens from outside light, while lighting the tank of water from below using sunlight and a mirror. The beginning of the article also makes reference to a study by Marey detailing the phases of movement of fish from a few months earlier, and seems to suggest that a study of liquid motion is the natural progression for further research.

Marey wasn’t done with living subjects by any means, but towards the end of his life (he died in 1904) he did a similar chronophotographic study involving trails of smoke rather than waves. The experiments rendered air currents visible to the camera as he caused streams of smoke to blow past different shapes in order to observe their aerodynamic properties. You can see some of those photos here. I haven’t seen any indications that Marey considered himself anything other than purely a scientist, but he was undeniably also an artist with his camera.

Why you should see it:

There’s something about this shot that is so hypnotic and spontaneous. So many of the motion pictures to this point have been photographed under carefully and rigidly-controlled circumstances. The lighting and background are just so. The movements of the people precise and deliberate. Even (actually, especially) the photographing of animals in motion are the results of a perfectly-orchestrated plan. And this is particularly true for Marey, the consummate methodical scientist. The wild beauty of this shot is that it isn’t any of those things.


~ by Jared on January 21, 2023.

One Response to “Film History Essentials: La Vague (1891)”

  1. […] film, rather than film in a studio or a nearby city street. Marey also famously captured images of an ocean wave, but those wouldn’t have been seen by many people outside of the scientific community. Acres, […]


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