From Physics, 1960

Berenice Abbott: Photography and Science (1939)

Cover: Physics, 1960
Cover: Physics, 1960

We live in a world made by science. But we–the millions of laymen–do not understand or appreciate the knowledge which thus controls daily life.

To obtain wide popular support for science, to that end that we may explore this vast subject even further and bring as yet unexplored areas under control, there needs to be a friendly interpreter between science and the layman.

I believe that photography can be this spokesman, as no other form of expression can be; for photography, the art of our time, the mechanical, scientific medium which matches the pace and character of our era, is attuned to the function. There is an essential unity between photography, science’s child, and science, the parent.

Yet 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, as well as the function of the recorder. The artist through history has been the spokesman and conservator of human and spiritual energies and ideas. Today science needs its voice. It needs the vivification of the visual image, the warm human quality of imagination added to its austere and stern disciplines. It needs to speak to the people in terms they will understand. They can understand photography preeminently.

From Physics, 1960
From Physics, 1960

To me, this function of photography seems extraordinarily urgent and exciting. Scientific subject matter may well be the most thrilling of today. My hope of moving into this new field comes logically in my own evolution as a photographer.

After I had explored the possibilities of portrait photography in Paris for some years, I set myself the task of documenting New York City. Now after ten years of work at this interpretation, I find this phase of my career rounded out with the publication of my book, Changing New York.

The problem of documenting science, of presenting its realistic subject matter with the same integrity as one portrays the culture morphology of our civilization, and yet of endowing this material so strange and unfamiliar to the public with the poetry of its own vast implications, would seem to me to lead logically from my previous experience.

I am now seeking channels through which this new creative task may be approached.

Berenice Abbott
New York City, April 24, 1939

From Physics, 1960
From Physics, 1960

Berenice Abbott (1898 – 1991) is best known for Changing New York, the classic series of photographs she made under the auspices of the Federal Art Project in the 1930s. But Abbott also made equally extraordinary photographs about science, a subject in which her interest was long-standing.

Abbott images were published in Science Illustrated in 1946 and in the textbook American High School Biology in 1948, the same year she was hired to be the photography editor of Science Illustrated magazine. In 1958, Abbott began working with the Physical Science Study Committee (PSSC), to help rethink how photographic images might be better incorporated into teaching materials. The high school text book, Physics, first published in 1960, featured Abbott’s photographs on its covers, as chapter openers, and to illustrate the texts.

For more information about Berenice Abbott’s science photography, see:

Making Science Visible: The Photography of Berenice Abbott, an article by Hannah Star Rogers:
http://photomediationsmachine.net/2015/03/24/making-science-visible-the-photography-of-berenice-abbott/

Berenice Abbott: Documenting Science, (Steidl, 2012), featuring texts by Ron Kurtz and Julia Van Haaften

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