New Landscape of Art and Science, 1951, Installation view, The New Landscape of Art and Science, 1951, courtesy: MIT Museum, Cambridge, MA

Ben Burbridge: Science Photography and the Art Museum

What do the histories of art have to teach us about the histories of science and technology? I want to address the question with reference to three exhibitions of scientific photography held in art museums: Film und Foto, curated by Bauhaus artist Lazlo Moholy-Nagy in Stuttgart in 1929; The New Landscape of Art and Science curated by Georgy Kepes at the Hayden Galleries at MIT in 1951, and Once Invisible curated by John Szarkoski at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1967. Together, these projects provide us with a sense of what is at stake when scientific imagery is exhibited as art, along with the important ways that public perceptions of science and technology invariably inform the meanings of these shows.

The earlier exhibitions had a lot in common. Each focused on the types of science photography that surpassed the capacities of unaided human vision. Pictures showed the astronomically distant and microscopically small, revealed the hidden nuances of rapid motion, and depicted the effects of invisible sources such as electricity and radiation. Removing the texts, written explanations and diagrams that originally accompanied the photographs, curators drew attention towards the aesthetic and formal characteristics of the imagery.

Poster, Film und Photo, 1929, courtesy: Museum of Modern Art, New York
Poster, Film und Photo, 1929, courtesy: Museum of Modern Art, New York

Dynamic installations placed disparately sized images in three-dimensional arrangements; an effort to convey something about the excitement and disturbance involved in new modes of technological seeing. This points towards a common concern with the changing relationship of man and machine, which the photographs were used both to demonstrate and to allegorise.

For all these similarities, the three exhibitions were by no means the same. Moholy described his interest in scientific imagery in terms of a ‘New Vision’; explaining that it fell to artists to explore the potential of technological seeing in order to change how the world was perceived. This was a social as much as an aesthetic project. Moholy believed that a transformation of perception could help to forge new social relationships and bring egalitarian societies into being.

That utopian project was the result of the artists’ experience of 1920s Weimar Germany: a site of exhilarating industrial production and political possibility. The optimism could not survive Moholy’s migration to the USA to flee the threat of the Nazis, nor the horrors of a second world war and news of the atomic bomb. ‘Saturated with old ideologies’, he explained, society had ‘failed to translate…newly gained experience into emotional and cultural reality’. The result ‘has been and still is misery and conflict, brutality and anguish, unemployment and war.’

New Landscape of Art and Science, 1951, Installation view, The New Landscape of Art and Science, 1951, courtesy: MIT Museum, Cambridge, MA
Installation view, The New Landscape of Art and Science, 1951, courtesy: MIT Museum, Cambridge, MA

Georgy Kepes set aside utopian visions in favour of using aesthetic encounters with scientific imagery to orientate society in a landscape ‘made strange and unfamiliar’ through the applications of scientific discovery. That shift can be understood against the backdrop of the early Cold War. By the late 1940s, 85% of the research budget at MIT—the institution at which Kepes was employed and which hosted The New Landscape—came from the military and the Atomic Energy Commission.

If it was the political instrumentalization of science that helped call earlier utopian visions into question, it has also raised questions about the artistic model Kepes proposed in response. For art historian John Blakinger, the idealistic notion that art and science could achieve a poetic unity ‘risked overlooking the ways in which the arts were already subsumed by the sciences.’

Installation view, Once Invisible, Museum of Modern Art, 1967, courtesy: Museum of Modern Art, New York
Installation view, Once Invisible, Museum of Modern Art, 1967, courtesy: Museum of Modern Art, New York

By the time Szarkowski’s exhibition opened in 1967 the Cold War had heated up. Artist Berenice Abbott’s science photographs—educational tools included in the show—received federal funding in 1957 only after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. The project provides a telling example of the intimate relationship shared by geopolitics, science and visual culture by that time.

A list of lenders to Once Invisible reads like a who’s who of key players in the US military-industrial complex. Captions explained how the photographs aided the applications of scientific discovery within industry. Once Invisible marks an important departure from the earlier projects, setting aside the productive tension between art and science to explore the potential of photographic form while also publicly celebrating the USA’s technological achievements.

Installation view, Revelations: Experiments in Photography, 2015, courtesy: Science Museum, London
Installation view, Revelations: Experiments in Photography, 2015, courtesy: Science Museum, London

The political philosopher Walter Benjamin once suggested that our understanding of the past will always be shaped by experiences of the present, just as experiences of the present will be moulded by the presence of the past. When I finished work on my own exhibition—Revelations: Experiments in Photography—about early science photography and its importance for the histories of art in 2015, it was the narrative sketched out above that pointed me towards the importance of wider contexts in defining the show’s potential meanings. It also helped me to appreciate what it might have been about our current moment that caused this particular history to ‘flash up’, in the manner described by Benjamin.

We live in a world moving rapidly towards automation. This means that questions that Moholy and others posed about our relationship to technology have renewed importance today: Will society be liberated from toil; a better quality of life secured for the many? Or will the growing surplus workforce drive wages down, while profits remain concentrated in the hands of the few? Will green technologies be harnessed to build sustainable futures? Or will that promise be sacrificed to the short-term thinking of a narrowly defined STEM-agenda that, in the words of former British Prime Minister David Cameron, is about ‘a global race for the best jobs’?

These are just a few among many of the issues that will necessarily frame exhibitions of science photography today, because they are the issues helping to define the wider public perception of science and technology. If we embrace this fact, and invest in the old Enlightenment promise of the museum as a space for public discourse, then these kinds of exhibition could provide valuable opportunities to reflect again on the types of future we want to build through technology; and to take stock of the social, political and economic questions that help define and delimit the meanings of science.

Ben Burbridge is senior lecturer in art history and co-director of the Centre for Photography and Visual Culture at University of Sussex, UK. His writing on photography, contemporary art, and politics has been published widely. Curated exhibitions include Revelations: Experiments in Photography (Media Space/National Media Museum 2015) and the 2012 Brighton Photo Biennial, Agents of Change: Photography and the Politics of Space. Burbridge is co-editor of Photoworks and co-founder of Ph: The Photography Research Network. He is currently working on a book about photography, contemporary art, and neoliberalism.