In his book Still Life with a Bridle, the Polish poet / essayist Zbigniew Herbert writes of an apocryphal letter composed by the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer and addressed to his friend and neighbor Antony van Leeuwenhoek, an early practitioner of what we now call microbiology. Every student’s first microscopic encounter with paramecium in middle-school can be traced back to Leeuwenhoek’s experiments in optics in the late 1600s when he refined the magnifying potential of lenses and designed at least two dozen microscopes of varying powers and uses.
In the letter, Vermeer recounts his negative epiphany one afternoon in Leeuwenhoek’s study when he peered down one of his microscopes into a drop of water. For Vermeer, what had always represented purity and simplicity was now revealed to be an environment for “strange creatures that swirl like in Bosch’s transparent hell.” He compliments his friend on the scientific advancement, but fears that wonder will be drained from the world. “With each new discovery a new abyss opens. We are more and more lonely in the mysterious void of the universe.”
One can sympathize with Vermeer’s anxiety; are wonder and knowledge fundamentally at odds? There is an awkward dance between our need for a stable worldview and our restless curiosity. Vermeer himself allegedly employed lenses to sharpen, so to speak, his cool observational powers.
When photography was applied to the microscope in the mid 19th century, science and enchantment found new expression. J.J. Woodward, Assistant Surgeon General of the United States, was the first scientist to actively explore photomicrography, as it was termed at the time, as a tool to assist biological science in a rigorous manner. One of his images, The Proboscis of a Butterfly, employs the denotative power of microscopic photography to reveal a precise and detailed view of a butterfly’s curled feeding tube. Yet isn’t the image more than description? Does it not also inspire amazement, even astonishment at the precise and universal patterns of creation even on the smallest of scales?
Photography also came to the assistance of those who turned their viewing devices upward to gaze at, ponder, and study the celestial dome. Charles Fabre, who penned the earliest encyclopedia of photography, called on the medium to give us “the geography of the heavens,” although it took several decades in the mid-19th century to improve the technology of light sensitive materials before celestial mapping could begin in earnest. Naturally, our closest celestial neighbor, the moon, was the first subject of the new medium and there are early instances of successful daguerreotypes made, most notably by John Adams Whipple.
James Nasmyth, British businessman, inventor and amateur astronomer made what appeared to be the most impressive 19th century photographs of the moon. Yet they are deceptive. Based upon careful telescopic observations, Nasmyth constructed three-dimensional plaster models of the moon’s surface pockmarked with craters and wrinkled with mountain ranges. Nasmyth then photographed the models as if they had been seen through a telescope, each precise topographic detail functioning like the moon’s fingerprint. While Nasmyth did not pretend that the images were authentic documents, he disseminated the images through his newly invented photomechanical process, and they were accepted, celebrated even, by scientists and the public alike, as the most accurate photographic representations of the moon to date. They are impressive even today, although Nasmyth’s images of active volcanic activity on the moon, give evidence that his wishful imagination was as least as acute as his empiricism.
The invention and near-instant ubiquity of photography in the 19th century was concurrent with the growth of the social sciences. Archeology, sociology, anthropology, criminology, and pseudo-sciences, such as phrenology, embraced photography, largely because this new medium could give evidential weight to any number of theories, reasonable and otherwise. While the ability to provide false evidence has haunted and undermined photography over the course of its existence, it has also provided artists interested in the quivering line between fact and fiction lots of gray area to explore and exploit.
Which brings us to the Spanish photographic artist Joan Fontcuberta, who has made a career playing with the ‘truthiness’ of photography. Fontcuberta has stated that growing up under Franco dictatorship made him wary of all authority, including the unquestioning acceptance of photographic truth. Among his many projects, he has made fake celestial images of dust and crushed insects and photographically inserted himself as a cosmonaut in historic images of Soviet space flight. His magnum opus to date is a project titled Fauna, for which he assembled an entire archive of a fictional early 20th century German naturalist Dr. Ameisenhaufen. Evidence such as taxidermied monstrosities, field notes, X-rays, identifying creatures with Latin terminology, all accompany elaborately-staged photographic tableaux of strange creatures in their natural habitat, in order to construct irrefutable proof of a wondrous bestiary. While gently mocking our sometimes-naive assumptions about science, Fontcuberta’s Fauna simultaneously enchants us with the marriage of observation and whimsy captured by the seductive gaze of the camera.
Mark Alice Durant is an artist and writer whose essays have appeared in journals including Art in America, Aperture, Dear Dave, Photograph, and Afterimage, and in numerous catalogs, monographs and anthologies. Durant is the author of Robert Heinecken: A Material History; McDermott and McGough: A History of Photography; and his most recent book is 27 Contexts: An Anecdotal History in Photography. His ongoing publishing project, Saint Lucy, produces both online and print projects. Durant is a professor in the Department of Visual Art at the University of Maryland.