Montpellier department of sports
Free Entry // Monday-Saturday // 10am-6pm // until March 22nd
Partially nude men and muscles in action. Black and white images slightly blurred, from times past.
No, it is not an Araki bondage retrospective, or anything else on the theme of perverse delusions of Mapplethorpe images. It is much wiser and educational than that. It is even scientific!
To put an end to the suspense: It is chronophotography, and it is taking place at the department of sports in Pierres Vives.
As the Lieutenant-Colonel Labrosse would say : “It is better to use scientific methods to control the effects of exercise and sport in general and to solve problems….”
What?….Wait….You don’t know what chronophotography is? Ok, here’s a little historical summary.
In the first three decades of its official creation (beginning in 1839), photography (which was then called heliography) was considered a simple scientific tool for architecture, astronomy, criminal sciences, and then later on for biology. Why did biology come later? Technical difficulties. The original methods were not fast enough to capture movement. But, eventually this limitation was removed. The passionate interest around studying in the human body and its mysteries, combined with this wooden box ‘eye’ that could only reproduce reality, made for a natural partnership. The curious people of the epoch were therefore amused by capturing everything that moved: men running, jumping, playing golf; horses jumping, birds flying. Then even threw cats to see how they landed on their paws! Even aerodynamic research was photographed.
A succession of images, which taken at regular intervals, are shown together in order to reproduce a complete movement and dissect our most mundane gestures. As I said earlier: it is scientific.
1900-1920, is the time period covered in this exhibit. So, you should expect to find a very particular look in these images: very prominent moustaches, right postures and the latest fashion of tighty-whities.
And this is appears to be a very promising video, on a 2-meter screen, which invites us to plunge into the heart of the gymnastic and scrimmage school of Joinville. But, you must not expect too much because the size of the exhibit is inversely proportional to the “futuristic city” effect of the facade (As I previously said: It’s scientific): The exhibition is quite small.
Small…but powerful. The sculpted bodies, the tight muscles even while lounging. The men in static poses, straining, connected to machines that certainly have some relationship to seismographs or polygraphs. Silent athletes turned into rats in a laboratory, futuristic chimeras, or nerdy Watchmen superheroes.
Only the titles are chilling: “Stretching exercise : Flexing of the trunk, legs straight on the ground, arms straight up, gun in hand with forward support of the feet.”
Who was in charge of all this? One Georges Demeny who also wore a second hat as the school director.
Georges was a very busy man. A businessman who had goals and innovative ideas, yes, but who also neglected small details. A number of images have such large frames that they give you the ‘come as you are’ experience of seeing all the supports surrounding the photo. Certain movements are not completely mastered so there is motion blur. The isn’t any notion of composition or symmetry; and even less mastery of natural light management, which is very harsh and creates a huge contrast between the subjects and the background.
But we must not condemn him, poor Georges. During this time, they were still very far from the rules of composition or other lighting techniques. Even the great names in this genre, like Marey, Muybridge or Edgerton were not doing any better. We had to wait many years before the artistic photograph concept began to germinate. As I’ve mentioned a few times already: this photographic style was scientific…
The print is rather surprising. For the images approaching a subject so particular and have crossed so many decades, one would expect to see very small images, and well protected under glass. But no, they are large, some are even more than one meter high. These are paper prints made from glass negatives. Unnecessary to tell you what the problems created by this process are sublime. The scratches on the glass, the cracks developed over time, the silhouettes holding the plates. We only see paper, but we feel the glass, the complexity of the procedure, the patience of the laboratory technician.
And then, what can one say about the experimental procedure that is chronophotography?….The sequences of movements, more or less densely blurred…of the bodies which are moving, multiplying and then reuniting…..Through squinted eyes, one can see flowers, waves and clouds. Go ahead, squeeze your eyes until they are almost shut, look very quickly from one image to the next, and experience the origins of the cinema!
Finally, looking back from over a century, it isn’t only scientific…
Certainly because of technical problems with the original photos, a number of the images are shown on a large screen.
But for the cherry on top, we begin and end this exhibition with over ten images deconstructing the mythical long jump of Bob Beamon, at the Olympic Games in Mexico in 1968. The starting block is even a real representation. The huge wooden Daguerreotype was no longer used at this time, and even the principle of the chronophotography was not totally respected, so the camera follows the athlete in his movement and captures a different perspective for each image.
And yes, while the utilitarian camera was becoming an aesthetic tool; high and canted angles were booming.
But that is another story….