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Photography and ScienceReview - Photography and Science
by Kelley Wilder
Reaktion , 2009
Review by Chiara Ambrosio, Ph.D.
Oct 13th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 42)

Since the first public presentation of the daguerreotype to the Paris Académie des Sciences on 7 January 1839, photography generated hopes and expectations among scientists. The new medium opened entirely novel possibilities for scientific observation and experimentation. Yet, along with its promising applications, photography challenged most of the assumptions that scientists had so far taken for granted. In Photography and Science, Kelley Wilder presents an interdisciplinary history of this controversial and yet ubiquitous form of representation and its relations with scientific practice.

The history of photography has been extensively studied by historians of art and historians of science alike. Art historians usually focus on the aesthetic qualities of photographs and draw connections between photography and the fine arts, but pay little attention to the scientific innovations behind the photographic medium. Historians of science, on the other hand, stress the scientific and technological aspects of photography at the expenses of the role that images play in science. With a few isolated exceptions, little dialogue has been developed across the two fields. Wilder's book tries to mend this state of things. Her work suggests that the divide between photography as science and photography as art is an artificial one, which mainly depends on the goals and purposes of different types of audiences, rather than some inherent property of individual photographs.

With this aim in mind, Wilder approaches photography through four themes, which form the four chapters of her book: observation, experiment, archiving and the relations between art and the scientific photograph. The first three chapters describe and question the relation of trust that photography established with scientific practices, whereas the last chapter investigates photography as an intermediary in the ongoing dialogue between artistic and scientific ideas and representative methods.

Scientists initially regarded photography as a powerful instrument to obtain objectivity in observation and measurement. Its mechanical, reproducible and reliable nature was a reason to believe that it would function as "an artificial the disposal of the physicists", as Jean Baptiste Biot enthusiastically announced to the assembled members of the Académie des Sciences in 1839 (9). By the end of the 19th century, photography was widely used by scientists as an instrument of observation of phenomena which were considered otherwise unobservable and was widely employed as a form of measurement, as well as a means of obtaining experimental evidence. Wilder describes photography as "generating observables" (43ff), either by capturing moments in time which cannot be registered by human perception or by gathering up in a single image photographs taken over a long interval of time, as in multiple exposures, high-speed photography or Francis Galton's renowned composite portraits. In all these cases, photography gained its scientific legitimacy by establishing its continuity with the 18th century tradition of scientific drawings.

The late 1890s were crucial years in the development of photographic observation. The discovery of x-rays by William Röntgen in 1895 triggered a genuine revolution in the field and it occurred at a point in which the supposed reliability of photography was being seriously questioned. Indeed, in the 1890s the scientific enthusiasm for the "artificial retina" metaphor began to weaken in the face of evidence attesting that, far from offering an objective image of reality, photography was an extremely flexible medium which could be manipulated at will.

Photographs could be retouched to forge events and deceive the public: the spiritualist movements that flourished at the turn of the century, for instance, relied on photography to produce evidence of the existence of ghosts and paranormal phenomena. The artistic appropriation of the medium also played a crucial role in undermining its supposed objectivity. Contrary to scientists, artists looked at photography as a creative medium which was complementary to painting. A clear instance of this is the emergence of pictorialism, a movement that became dominant in the 1890s, which explicitly aimed to differentiate artistic photography from scientific photography by treating the former as painting. Far from counterfeiting real events, artists aimed to reinstate the subjective dimension which is inherent in the very process of observing.

Despite the shifting conceptions that characterized scientists' understanding and use of mechanically produced images, photography never lost its privileged status in science. One of the reasons of its success, Wilder claims, is that in many respects the development of photographic practice paralleled scientists' methodological reflections on the reliability of experimental evidence. This is well exemplified by the little-told story of the development of emulsion science, which Wilder explains clearly and vividly. For photography to be used as reliable experimental evidence, it was indispensable that scientists gained control over photochemical reactions: "each small step in building an experiment involving photography required a small step in forming and molding a photographic emulsion" (78). Wilder shows that control over emulsions was a hard conquered achievement which involved a whole host of often unknown mathematicians, statisticians, researchers and chemical tinkerers, along with the notorious names commonly associated to the history of photography.

Another important application that allowed photography to retain its place in scientific practice relates to the way in which it affected classification. In examining the birth and development of photographic archives, Wilder draws illuminating parallels with the changing conceptions of taxonomies in the first decades of the 20th century. She maintains that "creating an archive with rigorous taxonomic constraints rests on the assumption that we know what important questions to ask of that archive" (80). This principle informed ideal taxonomies prior to the advent of photography, but turned out to be inadequate in the 20th century, when the impulse to gather up as many details as possible resulted in a shift toward serial collection. The new function of photographic archives fulfilled the need of retaining accidental information along with intentionally collected data, thus preserving a complete and exhaustive record of scientific phenomena for the purpose of future investigation.

Along with its crucial role in shaping scientists' evolving understanding of concepts and practices such as observation, experiment and archiving, photography plays a crucial role in facilitating and furthering current debates on the relations between art and science. Wilder insightfully stresses that photography is a method of doing science (as opposed to merely illustrating it), as much as it is a way of doing art. In this respect, her work reinforces the realization that common aesthetic principles drive both fields, and that a study of such principles may open novel perspectives for interdisciplinary collaborations, along with enriching the history of art and the history of science.

Wilder's book is a thought-provoking journey into the most exciting and less known aspects of the history of photography and its most recent applications. Her persuasive line of argumentation discloses an original perspective on this form of representation and reveals that photography's strengths lie mainly in what were once considered as its insoluble contradictions. Photography and Science stands as an informed, elegantly illustrated and vividly argued study of two fields which are only rarely examined in conjunction, and as such it will captivate scientists, artists, historians and philosophers alike.  


© 2009 Chiara Ambrosio


Dr. Chiara Ambrosio, Teaching Fellow in Philosophy of Science, Department of Science and Technology Studies, University College London


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