A photograph of Earth seen from the Moon, dating 1968, opens Aperture’s recent publication, Seeing Science – How Photography Reveals the Universe. « Serene, if a little disquieting, the photograph presents the marbled, blue-and-white planet’s fragile beauty that, seen from a distance, hints at Earth’s insignificance in the vastness of space. Wonder and intimations of the sublime are the frequent by-products of science photography, and the most paradigm-changing of images can be simultaneously mind-boggling and sobering”, the publication’s director, Marvin Heiferman, writes. “And I can’t help and think about Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog.”
First published in 1968, The Whole Earth Catalog was conceived “as a concise reference of tools for the improvement of the world and the self.” America seemed to be heading toward a clash of generations that would tear society apart, the world was competing over the domination of space, and Brand collected material that would help answer deep questions about the meaning of life. He wondered, “Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole earth yet?” Had we seen one, progress would have gone in a very different direction, he argued.
New look, new knowledge
Seeing Science serves a similar purpose as Brand’s Catalog’s. It follows the evolution of science – a chronology spanning 3,000 years in the end of the book gives an astonishing overview of the evolution of image and science – and the role that photography played in each advancement. More than a mere collection, it is a survey of how “photography, born of and shaped by science, transformed the nature of observation and stretched the parameters of knowledge and humanity’s sense of itself”, Heiferman notes.
While space is the most striking, fantasy-arousing, instance, the book doesn’t limit itself to the infinitely far. Rather, it covers the extraordinary range of circumstances in which imaging is produced in the field of science – physics, nature photography, ethnology, medicine, criminality, behavioral science, archeology, oceanography, technology. For each, a different apparatus. X-Ray accesses the otherwise invisible, motion picture allows to study movement, underwater photography gives access to the blue world. Photography serves as a tool for scientists, but it also promotes scientific literacy towards the public. Famous portraits of scientists shaped the way we perceive it – isn’t it true that James Ball’s photographs of early computer makes technology look beautiful, “even sexy,” the editor ask.
Science photography, it appears, ended up serving other purposes than strictly scientific ones. The book traces back the 1879 headshots by the police clerk, Alphonse Bertillon, who used them to keep track of criminals. It later moves forward a century later, when Bertillon’s anthropometric system has been converted and expanded into facial recognition grids. And to make it full circle, a section is dedicated to artist Nancy Burson, who collaborated with MIT engineers that explored a computer’s ability to simulate the effects of aging through a system of morphing faces. The results of this research, we learn, was later used by the FBI to update existing photos of missing children and adults.
Science at the heart of art
A compelling aspect of the book relies in its selection of artists who have embraced emerging imagery and techniques for their own work. And this, early on. In the late 1950’s, photographer Berenice Abbott declared, “So far the task of photographing scientific subjects and endowing them with popular appeal and scientific correctness has not been mastered. The function of the artist is needed here […]. Today science needs its voice.” Seeing Science features some of the high school Physics textbook she illustrated – abstract, geometrical compositions that illustrated various experiments. Science flirts with abstraction, and soon with science fiction, as at the uncanny photographs sourced by French artist David Fathi in the online archives of CERN. Shared fascinations emerge, and with it a whole range of possibilities.
In this regard, Seeing Science may inspire photographers aspiring to expand their visual language, be it to address ethical and social issues or to push the medium forward, inspired by new visual possibilities. This may lead to fiction, such as in Joan Fontcuberta’s surreal fauna catalog, or, timely, for awareness and activism purposes. Science journalism has an important role to play in today’s environmental discussion and some excerpts from conversations among visual culture experts who gathered online to discuss a selection of science-related news and media photographs on December 1, 2016, transcribed in the book, bring up interesting questions about its challenges. Landscape and nature photography undoubtedly help shape public opinion – the example of the melting glaciers shot by James Balog in 2007 is irrefutable. But how about documenting a health crisis, experts question?
Seeing Science: How Photography Reveals the Universe
By Marvin Heiferman / Foreword by Scott Kelly
Copublished by Aperture and University of Maryland, Baltimore County
224 pages, $45