Isn’t this a wonderful evocation of the movement of an excited dachshund out for a walk? You can just feel the undulations of the leash and the wagging of the tail, and you can almost hear the clicking of the dog’s toenails on the sidewalk. A camera might capture this scene by freezing an instant. This would give us more surface detail, but none of the jaunty spirit that Balla shares with us here.
In this post I present a variety of modern approaches to capturing movement in the still media of drawing and painting, sculpture, and photography. If you’d like a more systematic approach to the topic, I recommend this excellent overview by James E. Cutting. I have had a longstanding interest in depicting the spirit of movement, especially human movement, through drawing, and my selection here reflects that.
Classical art tends to imply the energy and movement of characters by putting them in poses of dynamic tension, or by depicting the flow of hair or drapery to suggest motion – some great sculptural examples are examined in the earlier post “Stories in the Round”.
Many of the prints in Hokusai’s series of “manga” (sketchbooks) are sharply observed pictures of human movement, sometimes shown in series of little drawings that look very much like the work of an animator. Surely Hokusai would have made animations if the concept had existed in his time!
Note, first, that movement is the transition from one attitude to another. . . You have certainly read in Ovid how Daphne was transformed into a bay-tree and Procne into a swallow. This charming writer shows us the body of the one taking on its covering of leaves and bark and the members of the other clothing themselves in feathers, so that in each of them one still sees the woman which will cease to be and the tree or bird which she will become. . . It is, in short, a metamorphosis of this kind that the painter or the sculptor effects in giving movement to his personages. He represents the transition from one pose to another. . . while my Saint John is represented with both feet on the ground, it is probable that an instantaneous photograph from a model making the same movement would show the back foot already raised and carried toward the other. . . this model photographed would present the odd appearance of a man suddenly stricken with paralysis and petrified in his pose. . . If, in fact, in instantaneous photographs, the figures, though taken while moving, seem suddenly fixed in mid-air, it is because , all parts of the body being reproduced exactly at the same twentieth or fortieth of a second, there is no progressive development of movement as there is in art. . . It is the artist who is truthful and it is photography which lies, for in reality time does not stop, and if the artist succeeds in producing the impression of a movement which takes several moments for accomplishment, his work is certainly much less conventional than the scientific image, where time is abruptly suspended.
Rodin is defending the traditional artistic approach of depicting moments against the new, photographically influenced, way of seeing time as a series of instants. Though he aligns himself with the classicists in this, Rodin was more interested in movement than the more academic artists. He did countless quick sketches, both in clay and in pencil and watercolor, observing figures in motion and capturing the quality of their aliveness with a remarkably free hand.
The “instantaneous photography” Rodin mentions was a new development in the late 19th Century. It enabled the analysis of movement too quick for the human eye, much less the drawing hand, to capture. In the 1880′s, Marey in France and Muybridge in California developed technologies for photographing movement in sequences of still photographs. Muybridge’s work was bankrolled by former California Governor Leland Stanford to settle a bet he had going about whether all four legs of a running horse were off the ground simultaneously at some point in the gallop (they are). This was something that could not be determined by naked eye observation. Muybridge went on to photograph analytical movement sequences of many animals and human models performing all kinds of actions, and his pictures are still studied by artists, animators, and anatomists.
Where Muybridge’s method produced a series of discrete stills, Marey’s technique superimposed the phases of movement in a single image.
The photography of Muybridge and Marey is a kind of proto-cinema, and motion picture technology grew out of their work. This study of walking (below) using a black body suit with reflective lines and dots on it even seems to prefigure the “motion capture” techniques used today to transfer movement from live actors to digitally generated characters.
From Marey’s photography Marcel Duchamp took this idea of superimposing temporal instants and combined it with a cubist fragmentation of form to produce his famous “Nude Descending a Staircase”, which caused a sensation – both of outrage and of inspiration – when it was exhibited at the Armory Show of 1913, the first major exhibition of European avant-garde art in America.
Boccioni attempted something similar in sculptural form, distorting the figure to emphasize its dynamism. Boccioni, who also painted, and Balla, whose trotting dachshund leads this post, were members of the Italian Futurist art movement, obsessed with speed and frenzy.
This is an excerpt from the Futurist Manifesto of 1909, by F. T. Marinetti:
- We want to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and rashness.
- The essential elements of our poetry will be courage, audacity and revolt.
- Literature has up to now magnified pensive immobility, ecstasy and slumber. We want to exalt movements of aggression, feverish sleeplessness, the double march, the perilous leap, the slap and the blow with the fist.
- We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath … a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.
- We want to sing the man at the wheel, the ideal axis of which crosses the earth, itself hurled along its orbit.
The world was being transformed and unsettled by new technologies and new media, and all the conventions of art seemed to lose their power, opening up new worlds of creative possibility. Among purely abstract painters, Kandinsky seemed to have a special ability to create compositions that felt like they contained leaping, vibrating life force.
In the 1930′s, electrical engineer Harold “Doc” Edgerton and Life Magazine photographer Gjon Mili worked together to develop the photographic possibilities of electronic strobe lighting, which made it possible to slice time into increasingly brief instants.
Stroboscopic photography improved Marey’s sequential superimposition technique, capturing faster motion with ultra clarity.
These photographers saw themselves as following in the footsteps of Duchamp. Here are two stroboscopic photo homages to the avant-garde master, by Life Magazine photographers Gjon Mili and Eliot Elisofon.
Strobes distilled the energy and grace of great performing artists into striking images for magazines, the great popular graphic art medium of the era. Below, the dancer and choreographer Martha Graham and the drummer Gene Krupa.
Of course, the art of painting is also fundamentally a movement art, as demonstrated here by Picasso, drawing in the air with a penlight, captured by the photographer with a long exposure combined with three strobe flashes.
Asian calligraphy had always been taught as an art of expressive movement, but Jackson Pollock was one of the first Western artists to treat painting as a form of dance. Here’s a video clip of Pollock at work.
Dancers also used drawing and painting to try to show what they feel kinesthetically and proprioceptually. Here’s a sketch by Nijinsky, the dancer of Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun and the original choreographer of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.
Nijinsky’s painting looks remarkably similar to the analytical drawing below by choreographer Rudolf von Laban. Laban created a system for analyzing and describing bodily movement. Laban described qualities of movement using evocative verbs: Float and Punch, Glide and Slash, Dab and Wring, Flick and Press. Those words could just as easily describe the different kinds of strokes a painter or drawer makes.
For an artist attempting to describe movement, it’s all about the flow of the hand, the rhythm and quality of the line. The Charlotte Trowbridge sketch below is made in response to the dance of Martha Graham, seen here previously in one of Gjon Mili’s stroboscopic studies.
This understanding of the expressive power of curved lines is essential in the art of cartoonists and animators.
Dance photographers also look for those distinctive contours. Below are two pieces from Lois Greenfield, perhaps the most famous dance photographer of our time. Greenfield uses strobe lighting (single, not multiple, flashes) to capture the peak moment of a movement, that instant at the top of a leap or the ultimate arc of a gesture. She also frequently employs the movement of fabrics, hair, or, below, flour (?), frozen in an instant, to magnify physicality with pure physics.
Greenfield’s shots are always frozen, perfectly sharp. Other dance photographers use longer exposures to show movement with motion blur. The challenge with motion blur is to find just the right amount – too little just looks like a mistake, while too much makes the figure disappear.
In the picture below, long exposure blurs are combined with strobe bursts to givc crisp renditions of the extremes of the sequence.
So far we’ve seen movement expressed through blurs, stroboscopic multiple images, and expressive lines. It can also be shown by distortion. Look at the tire in the photo below. It seems to lean forward with effort, while the spectators in the background lean in the opposite direction. This is the effect of a slit shutter, a gap that moves across the frame, exposing parts of it sequentially. In this image, the shutter exposes the bottom of the frame first and moves upward through a brief interval of time. The racing car is moving as the shutter goes up, so the upper part of the wheel, which is exposed later, has moved further to the right than the lower part of the wheel that was exposed earlier. The spectators bend to the left because the camera is panning to the right to try to keep up with the movement of the car, but it isn’t panning as fast as the car is moving.
The “slit scan” shutter is the principle behind the “photo finish” camera. Such a camera has a slit shutter centered on the finish line of a race. As the racers approach the line, a photo is made with the shutter opening remaining stationary, while the film moves across in the same direction as the racers. This produces a photograph in which the horizontal dimension shows not space, but time. Every vertical slice of this photo represents the same vertical slice of space – the finish line – but further to the right is earlier in time, and further to the left is later. The background looks like a streak because it is the same slice of space spread out right to left. The runners appear distorted because different parts of their bodies are recorded at different times.
Some photographers have used slit-scan cameras of this kind to create artistic studies of movement. If you stuck your hand in a scanner or photocopier and waved it as the scanner moved across, you’d be doing basically the same thing that’s happening in these photos. The resultant image would show your fingers bending zigzag as the scanner moves laterally through time.
The below images are made by digitally combining “10,000 individual photographs of a dancer”. I don’t know exactly what that means, but I presume the images are frames from an ultra-high-speed camera such as those used to produce those ultra slow motion videos of bursting water balloons and the like, and that these images are somehow digitally combined. The result has the smoothness of the blur photographs combined with the sharpness of the stroboscopic images or the slit-scan images.
The photographer Adam Fuss makes large scale photograms, images made by placing objects on top of film and exposing it directly to light, so that it records the shadow of the object. He uses water to transform the movement of the subject into ripples that show how its movement affects the space around it. It’s a beautiful way to show a snake, or a baby, not as a thing, but as a force in the energy field.
All the illustrations in this post were found on the web. Clicking on the photos will take you to the pages where I found them, and often to larger versions, additional work by the same artists, or further information placing the works in historical context or explaining the techniques used.