Photography: Science as Art

Michael R Peres & David Malin. Focal Encyclopedia of Photography: Digital Imaging, Theory and Applications, History and Science. Editor: Michael R Peres. 4th edition. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2007.

Since its invention, photography has been recognized as both an art and a science, linked by the technology through which its images are captured and then preserved. It is natural that aspects of these three components, in varying degrees, would be evident in photographic images. The extent to which art, science, or technology dominates the photographic expression is in the hands and the imaginative eye and mind of the practitioner. The importance of the motives in photography is as relevant in the digital age as it was for Daguerre and Fox Talbot, both of whom made some of the first photographs of scientific subjects.

Once its potential was realized, the intent of scientific photography has always been to make images without the photographer’s personal biases being unduly evident. However, true objectivity is not possible, since someone has to press the shutter, light the subject, and frame the scene. In addition, the myriad of considerations necessary to convert a three-dimensional view into a two-dimensional image are almost all influenced by the photographer or imposed by the technology. So while the intent may be complete objectivity, subjective influences inevitably intrude.

Most scientific photography is done with visible light and traditional cameras, but it may also be used to record invisible objects with dimensions of atomic or cosmic proportions, exploiting almost any region of the electromagnetic spectrum and in ways that are unconventional or highly specialized—holography and electron microscopy come to mind here. Scientific imaging also embraces the representation of scientific data that have no visual counterpart, such as a radiograph, or that is purely numerical, such as a fractal. Many of the subjects are recorded specifically because they have not been observed before, or cannot be observed directly, or simply because an image is the most convenient way to capture a rich stream of data, as in an outward-looking astronomical telescope or downward gazing earth-orbiting satellite. Consequently, a frame of reference is often absent from many science pictures, and when presented without scale, title, or context, they may appear as abstract images to the uninformed viewer.

It is clear that scientific photography offers a vast opportunity for anyone with a creative eye, although many of its practitioners would not consider themselves artists. Indeed many would not admit to being photographers in any conventional sense either. Nonetheless, it is hardly surprising that images made for science can be aesthetically pleasing or even inspirational, since they often reflect aspects of the world of nature, of science, and of technology that are not easily observed. Sometimes this world is inaccessible, unseen, or non-visible, yet can produce images that are mysterious, revealing, provocative, or inspirational to the science community and beyond.

Much of this was foreseen by the French astronomer Arago, who introduced Daguerre’s revolutionary invention to the French government in July, 1839, with the intention of making the details public in return for a generous life pension for Daguerre. The full text is in Eder’s History of Photography. It was clear that Arago saw the new process as useful in archeology, astronomy and lunar photography, photometry, microscopy, meteorology, physiology, and medicine, while noting “… its usefulness in the arts.” Thus from the beginning, the value of photography in the sciences was recognized.

The objective of preserving scientific data through permanent images was a key motivation before photography itself was invented. The idea of recording the outlines of leaves and insect wings using light alone was suggested 1802 by the photographic pioneer Thomas Wedgwood. This became a practical reality with Fox Talbot’s calotype salt-paper prints and through John Herschel’s cyanotype (blue-print) process, invented in 1842. A year later this led to the first book to be illustrated with photographs, Anna Atkins’ British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions.

Atkins’ book contained over 400 shadowgraphs and appeared a year before Fox Talbot’s much better known Pencil of Nature. In the preface to her book Atkins wrote, “T e difficulty of making accurate drawings of objects as minute as many of the Algae and Confervae has induced me to avail myself of Sir John Herschel’s beautiful process of Cyanotype, to obtain impressions of the plants themselves, which I have much pleasure in offering to my botanical friends.” Despite its prosaic title and unusual subject matter, it contains images of science that are delicate and often quite beautiful, revealing the variety, transparency, and detail of natural forms in a way that no drawing can.

Atkins’ skillful work showed that photographs had the potential to replace the pencil drawings often used for botanical specimens and to provide a new and visually compelling means of expression. It had also convinced some people, uninterested in algae, science, or even photography itself, that the forms and textures captured by this new process could be intriguing or even beautiful. It is in these ways, through inspiration, insight, and expression, that images of science may also occasionally, by chance or design, be works of art. It is a rather small departure from this to deliberately make scientific images that are intended to be aesthetically pleasing but that almost incidentally include scientific subjects and use scientific equipment, ideas, or techniques.

There were other early practitioners of science photography whose work was groundbreaking in both its photographic results as well as its aesthetic qualities. In her chapter on “The Search for Pattern” in Beauty of Another Order, Ann Thomas writes, “Mid-nineteenth century art critic Francis Wey (1812-1982) while puzzling over whether photography was an art of science, decided “… it was a kind of hyphen between the two. In fact art-science was the term nineteenth century astronomer Thomas W. Burr used to describe the recording of magnetic and meteorological data in 1865.”

There were many pioneers dedicated to using photography as a means of scientific enlightenment, and initially most were British or European, though the work of New Yorker, John William Draper caught the eye of another pioneer, the distinguished astronomer, Sir John Herschel. Commenting on Draper’s Experimental Spectrum, a daguerreotype made in 1842, he refers to “… the beauty of the specimen itself as a joint work of art and nature …” Later, and exploiting an entirely different property of photography, Thomas Eakins, Eadweard Muybridge, Étienne-Jules Marey, and Harold Edgerton at various times showed how it can be used to stop motion with arresting images. Later still we find photography firmly allied to the microscope to explore the hidden beauty of the very small or to the astronomical telescope to reveal unseen cosmic landscapes.

Many of these early practitioners were scientists who turned to photography to add to their understanding. More unusual was the photographer who turned to science for inspiration. The exemplar of this approach might be found in the pioneering woman photographer, Berenice Abbott, who made her reputation with her monumental Federal Art Project documentation Changing New York (1935-1939). Berenice Abbott proposed a new role for herself as science photographer, but she found little encouragement for her interest. In later life she turned her considerable talents to capturing scientific ideas in images, and wrote that photography was “… the medium pre-eminently qualified to unite art with science. Photography was born in the years which ushered in the scientific age, an offspring of both science and art” (see Figure 29).

When we look at scientific images taken 150 or more years ago, many now seem to be minor works of art, partly because of their rarity, but also because many of those who embraced photography in its early days had some artistic training or temperament. Many of the early processes also had a delicacy of tone or color that lends a grace and style rarely seen today, however, few of the early science pictures that we now see as artistic, neither sought nor received the attention that we accord them today. They were exchanged between friends or colleagues, shown at the meetings of the learned societies of the day, and sometimes exhibited as examples of the art of photography. The world’s first photographic exhibition was held in Birmingham, England, in 1839. It consisted of 56 photographs by Fox Talbot, of which half were pictures of grasses, seeds, ferns, and other botanical specimens. Many of these “photogenic drawings” have not survived, but by description they are clearly images of science.

Not all practitioners had Fox Talbot’s eye for composition and as photography became more specialized and complex, pictures for scientific purposes were often made without aesthetic considerations. However, as photography became more widely available in the 1880s, largely through the efforts of George Eastman, and more widely published through magazines such as the National Geographic, specialists in geography and geology, botany and anthropology, to name but a few, soon found their images were more desirable for publication if they were also good to look at. Thus scientific photography overlapped with photojournalism, and as photojournalism reached its zenith in the 1960s, interest in scientific images as visually interesting artifacts similarly increased.

As Ann Thomas writes in Beauty of Another Order, “scientific photography is a subject long overdue scholarly attention and several publications and exhibitions have paved the way for more comprehensive treatment.” Among them she lists are Once Visible at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1967; Beyond Vision at the Science Museum, London, in 1984; and Images d’un Autre Monde at the Centre National de Photographie, Paris, in 1991 as well as several other important exhibitions worldwide.

Another notable activity designed to promote an aspect of scientific photography as art is the Nikon Small World photomicrography competition, which was started in 1974. The entries are exhibited widely throughout North America. The Japanese Society of Scientific Photography has also had an annual exhibition since 1979 and a similar but more recent series of Visions of Science competitions and associated exhibitions are held annually in the UK. “Image-aware” institutions such as the Rochester Institute of Technology also support scientific imaging and their Images of Science exhibition has traveled widely.

Nowhere has the inspirational nature of the scientific image penetrated further into the public consciousness than in astronomy. Since the early 1980s, true-color photographs of distant stars and galaxies from ground-based telescopes became commonplace. Now more than a decade later, the stream of stunning images and groundbreaking science from the Hubble Space Telescope have transformed our view of the universe both scientifically and aesthetically. In addition, several generations of probes and satellites have visited the outer solar system. Not surprisingly, the most photogenic of the planets, the ringed world Saturn, provides the most remarkable and haunting images from the joint USA-European Cassini spacecraft. The beauty of these pictures is no accident; space agencies long ago realized fine images and frontline science were both perfectly compatible and complementary.

At the other end of the scale, optical and electron microscopes are also capable of producing striking images, sometimes in the cause of science and sometimes for art’s sake. The scanning electron microscope is especially adept at this since its magnification can be so high yet create images of great depth.

Figure 31 is an image taken by Felice Frankel, a well-known “scientific artist” at high magnification and author whose work has been widely published and exhibited worldwide. In the image, a drop of ferrofluid (magnetite suspended in oil) is on a slide on top of a yellow slip of paper, and magnets under the paper are pulling the magnetite particles into place.

Another contemporary example of photographers working on the frontiers of art and science are Oliver Meckes and Nicole Ottawa whose work is compelling, powerful, and fascinating. Their photographs portray their subjects with scientific accuracy and visual elegance. Figure 32 shows a section through the leaf of a lavender plant. The rounded structure (pale tan, lower center) is an oil gland that produces lavender’s aroma. The color in this image was digitally added later since scanning electron microscopes are only capable of producing monochrome images.

A more conventional scientific photographer whose work transcends mere scientific illustration is Professor Andrew Davidhazy of the Rochester Institute of Technology. For more than 40 years, Professor Davidhazy has developed or refined unusual scientific imaging techniques, many of which manage to combine the concepts of time and motion into one picture, often with surprisingly beautiful results.

More than 170 years after the first science pictures were created, there is still an ambiguity associated with this type of photography. Just as the intent of the photographer decides what category of image will be made, so it is the mindset of the beholder that decides if it is art.