“…if history is any guide, every time we have built new eyes to observe the universe, our understanding of ourselves and our place in it has been forever altered.”
Lawrence M. Krauss, theoretical physicist
The term scientist was coined by William Whewell–a British historian, philosopher of science, and colleague of Charles Darwin–in 1834. Five years later, the first public use of the word photography was credited to another Whewell associate, Sir John Hershel, the photographic pioneer who also introduced the words negative and positive into the discourse of the new imaging medium. And ever since then, science and photography have been inextricably intertwined, two observational disciplines that continually reimagine and redefine each other as our need to see and ways of looking evolve.
Photography has transformed science: from the earliest daguerreotypes of the moon to photos made by astronauts taking their first steps on the lunar surface, from the X-rays that startled the public in 1895 to diagnostic images taken by pill-sized ingestible cameras, from photographs made by researchers peering through microscopes and telescopes to the vast image data banks used to program facial and object recognition programs. And, visa versa. As the photographic historian Kelley Wilder noted: “Photography would not exist but for scientific investigation, and science would hardly have the form it has today without photography.”
Images are made to capture, study, catalog, and share information as scientific disciplines employ imaging technology to various ends. And just as the sciences have been shaped by the making and reading of images, so has public’s perception of science, its practitioners, and impact. As a result, no single history or straightforward narrative about the nature and practice of scientific imaging is easily constructed or retains its status for long.
Certain things do, however, remain constant. Photography makes visible what is too close or far away, too big or small to be seen by the human eye, too slow or too fast to be perceived by the human brain. “Scientific experience is molded by image-making and image reading,” as science historians Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison explained. Throughout the 19th and much of the 20th centuries, photography was embraced for, if occasionally challenged over its purported objectivity. The continuous development of faster cameras, ever more precise lenses and light-capturing emulsions and sensors underscored the demand for accurate photographs to function as unbiased “working objects.”
Revealing and reliable images, it would turn out, could also be constructed from sound waves, heat readings, radiation, light waves too short or long for human perception, and electrical impulses. Recent advances in digital and computational imaging have broadened the parameters of photography and science even further, providing new ways to visualize the structures and processes that shape the universe. If, in the past, photographic images were believed best left untouched to insure their authority, today they are routinely modified or amplified—composited, colorized, and animated—in order to provide better data, rather than to distort.
Interestingly, images central to day-to-day work in the sciences sometimes lead multiple lives as they circulate in other cultural arenas. They trigger radical shifts in the ways non-specialists understand their own bodies and each other, time and space, the world we know and worlds we can only imagine. Science photographs range in scope and subject matter from the mundane to the awesome. Given how much they reveal about what we cannot see for ourselves, they are not only informative, but deeply consequential and humbling. Photographs of atomic bomb blasts, unborn fetuses, Earth seen from space, and glaciers melting away have all become as controversial as they are utilitarian, as philosophically and politically charged as they are iconic.
In the late 1950s, the British scientist and novelist C. P. Snow argued that the sciences and humanities represented two distinct and seemingly unbridgeable cultures. But more than half a century later, it can be argued that the gap has closed as photographic images made in and of the sciences circulate with greater frequency—as front page news, on social media, in advertisements and popular cultural entertainments, to promote technology, raise awareness of health and environmental issues, and impact public policy. In the eyes of the public, and given the multitude of ways the sciences are widely and vividly pictured in visual culture, science has moved from the background to the foreground in the 21st century’s field of vision.
Marvin Heiferman, curator and producer of SEEING SCIENCE, creates projects about photography and visual culture for institutions including the Museum of Modern Art, Smithsonian Institution, International Center of Photography, Whitney Museum of American Art, New Museum and the Carnegie Museum of Art. A Senior Visiting Research Scholar at University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), Heiferman has written for The New York Times, CNN, Artforum, Design Observer, Gagosian Quarterly, Art in America, and Aperture. His most recent book is Photography Changes Everything (Aperture/Smithsonian, 2012).