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Photography and Science: Conspirators

F. David Peat

The following is a portion of the essay found in the new book Photography's multiple roles. For copyright reasons the entire text cannot be reproduced here.

A text only version of this essay is available to download.

Photography occupies a privileged position within the current debate on the relationship of art and science. Its origins are inexorably linked to both, for its pioneers, including Nicepore Niepce, Henry Fox Talbot, L.J.M Daguerre, firmly had their feet in two camps. Indeed, the nineteenth century itself was the heyday of scientific amateurs whose combination of passion and intellectual openness, along with an enthusiasm for experimentation, produced significant contributions in geology, biology, astronomy and chemistry. In particular these inquirers noted the way certain chemical substances darken, or change color, under the influence of sunlight. Inevitably this was associated with the desire to fix and record, for artistic purposes, images produced by the camera obscura and camera lucida. Thus was photography born out of the passionate engagement of art and science, a ardor that persists to the present day.

More than any other of the arts, photography comfortably occupies the scientific fence, being both a tool of science and, to a large extent, one of its technical products. In turn, contemporary photography informs us about our scientific world and, in particular, reflects back to us the technological ambience in which we live.

Although photography has been around for over a century and a half its present diversity suggests that it is remains young at heart. Photography constantly outstrips its own boundaries and bursts through any aesthetic definition imposed upon it. In many ways it is a vulgar art, vulgar in that it is immediately accessible to all, and vulgar because of its enormous energy. Photography cannot be held in check. It is as varied as the photographers who practice it, and in so many ways illuminates the world and our human condition more vividly that any other of the arts.

Photography was adopted as a instrument of science almost from its inception. Fox Talbot found his "pencil of nature" capable of revealing such a wealth of detail as to confound those who first perused his photographic images. People who believed they had been looking carefully at nature now realized how much their acts of seeing had been filtered though the strategies of consciousness and habit. Photography, by contrast, appeared to be showing the world as it really is and, for a time at least, the camera became the ultimate objective observer. In this sense photography was well adapted to the scientific requirements of detailed observation and meticulous classification. With the help of telescopes, microscopes and fast shutter speeds it could reveal what lay beyond the human senses. Photography's abilities further extended until, in our modern age, it tells us about everything from the early state of the universe to the ultimate building blocks of matter.

But, as a tool of science, photography goes far beyond the passive action of recording and classifying. The development of scientific theories generally depends upon some form of conceptualization and visualization. Indeed, the world "theory" itself is entomologically related to "theater" and, in this sense, even our most abstract notions about fundamental matter are displayed in "theaters of the mind". It is here that images, diagrams and other visual displays become invaluable. It is as if a mathematical result remains in some sense purely abstract until it can be cast into the world of the concrete visible. The recent up surge of interest in chaos and complexity theories, for example, has, in part, been made possible by science's ability to construct, using high speed computers, visual models and images of fractals, shock waves, self-organizing systems and other non-linear processes. Raw data becomes digestible when it can be displayed according to a diagram or visual scheme. And, for scientific thinking to take its next step, some mode of expression external to itself is needed which can then be internalized and manipulated by thought. For this reason science has a need for photography, both as its servant and collaborator.

In turn, though its appetite for the visual image, scientific technology has vastly extended the nature and range of photography itself from its origins as the record of reflected light focussed upon a photosensitive plate. If we are sick we take it for granted that pictures of our internal organs can be produced through ultrasound scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and positron tomography(PET). The range of frequencies used in image making includes X-rays, radio waves and the infrared. Satellite imaging and space probes produce dramatic information about the solar system. Photomultipliers create photographs where just a few photons of light are available. Scanning electron microscopy reveals the world under out fingertips. The fastest of movements can be arrested, and the most "noisy" of images digitally enhanced.

In turn, this technology has been rapidly incorporated into the art of photography, along with the "feel" of the particular images it produces. Photography and scientific technology continue to accelerate into the future, side by side, each feeding off and informing the other.

It is inevitable that an art as potent as photography engender hot debates about its futre and its current aesthetics. Some photographers lean towards the medium's objective, documentary ability as a means of reporting on the world and human society. Others argue that photography inevitably selects, frames and manipulates the images it produces according to the subjective values of individual photographers. Some embrace the most advanced technologies, sampling, selecting and processing images though digital means. Others return to photography's origins, working directly with light-sensitive materials that involve the minimum of technological interference. In particular, they look for ways in which nature can be persuaded to reveal herself in the gentlest manner possible. Some have even become fascinated by the alchemical nature of the photographic processes and by the metaphysical qualities of light and its interactions with matter. Others seek to project their own particular ways of seeing onto the world, or to treat photography as a branch of Conceptual Art.

An aspect of this debate about the nature of the photographic image can be traced to the origins of Western science at the hands of Galileo. Using his telescope Galileo not only discovered the existence of sunspots but deduced from their movement evidence of the sun's rotation, thereby supporting the Copernican heliocentric theory. Attempts to discredit Galileo where directed, in part, to his use of the lens which came between the eye and its object of perusal. Since the action of a lens is to bend rays of light, that is to distort their true motion, it could be argued that the resulting image had a different ontology than anything heretofore observed.

If, as certain feminist critics have argued, the masculine reaction to nature is one of projection then science and its first instrument, the lens, stand as a paradigm example. In this sense the use of the lens and, indeed, all other forms of scientific apparatus that extend the senses have an association with that which is indirect, distorted and untruthful, second hand. It is possibly for such underlying reasons that image makers such as Arnold Gilbert and Abelardo Morell have chosen to dispense with the camera's mechanism.

The arguments concerning Galileo's astronomical images echo down to our own time when the physicist Neils Bohr argued that the nature of subatomic matter can only be described in terms of paradoxically and mutually exclusive statements, such as wave and particle. As his colleague in the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Theory, Werner Heisenberg, argued, the meaning of quantum theory likes in the mathematics rather than in the conceptual and visual projections we make about the world. In our present quantum world the ontology of the image is again being called into question.

This essay has drawn upon the arguments of science because contemporary photography exists within a conceptual ambience largely informed by science and the post-modernistic thinking associated with it. Photography is now practiced within an arena of slippage, uncertainty, unpredictability and the denial of closure. In turn, photography crystallizes and reinforces these new sensibilities, enhancing and reflecting them back to us. It is from within this ambience that I have selected the images that accompany this essay and resonate with the contemporary debates on photography. Some present the public face of science. Others are more concerned with its methodology, concepts and world-view, or reflect the visual world of contemporary technology.

These images from the art of photography also have a vigorous life of their own. Their potency has a significant influence upon the worlds of advertising, film, television and the trappings of our domestic surroundings. And so the work photographers are currently making of our world subtly influence a future generation of thinkers, conceptualizers and image-makers.

See also
Art and Science Forum

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