There is not a lot about this exhibition in the press even though it is running at The Science Museum in London. Most notifications are short mentioning a magical aspect to the photographs in show, some of which are rare, notably work by Fox Talbot who invented the negative printing process that made photography into such a popular medium.
There is a review in The Standard by Sue Steward who states “In photography, art has always tried to represent science, while advances in science have helped produce works of art.” The idea that art has always tried to represent science is not true as anyone with a knowledge of abstract art would surely attest to. Her concluding remark on the exhibition though seems appropriate for she describes it as about capturing “magical experiments with abstract beauty.”
I can not help but recall the writing of Walter Benjamin who pointed out that “Photography makes aware for the first time the optical unconscious, just as psychoanalysis discloses the instinctual unconscious.” This seems to set the theme for this exhibition which I am yet to see.
Francis Hodgson writing a review for The Financial Times says “A fine exhibition of science photography falters with it’s selection of more recent works.” I do not have the code to read more of this article!
After a walk from Paddington Station across Hyde Park and the Serpentine with it’s free gallery and excellent bookshop, I arrive early at the museum and meet OCA tutor Robert Enoch who later asks us about about the assumption that photography is a technical rather than a creative medium! Is photography a plastic art? This means it is malleable like painting and sculpture!
Nothing to do with the Biblical Book of Revelations rather photography’s ability to “reveal” what the human eye can not see. As text accompanying the exhibition says, “As photography’s place within scientific investigation developed, it helped lend form to phenomena that had previously been invisible to the naked eye.”
From about 1840, Fox Talbot was making photo micrographs. There is a subjective quality to these photographs as we’ll as many other in the exhibition that are also scientific documents. There are more photo micrographic images by Auguste Adolphe Bertsch from 1857 as well as photographs of sun spots from the Meudon Observatory in 1878, photographs of light that has passed through a dichroic crystal and lunar craters illumined by raking sunlight from 1858.
Earlier photographers were superseded by later photographers who were using more technically proficient gear. For instance, Arthur Mason Worthington made “splash” images around 1900 as did Arthur Clive Banfield slightly later in 1905; later on in 1936, Harold Edgerton made much improved images while Etienne-Jules Marey in 1888 made photographs that Muybridge was to later mimic.
What really made Edgerton famous and not these pioneers? Edgerton made colour images to which he gave an artistic edge with his choice of colour contrast!
The organic nature of electricity! Pierre Boss, novelist, referred to electricity as a goddess as cited with Man Ray’s photograms.
Moholy-Nagy made photograms in the mid 1920’s. Artistic emphasis not scientific! Appeared in his book “Painting, Photography, Film” published in 1925 and republished in 1969.
Some of these early photographers were clearly thinking of aesthetics.
The New Vision 1925 to 1979
Accomplished photographic designs by Bernice Abbott.
Gyorgy Kepes did a book in 1951 called “the new landscape in art and science” which explored vistas opened up by the photography of scientific subjects
We discuss “Photo Drawing” from 1962; might one do such work in Photoshop!?
Not easy to work out the method used although the image is a photogram.
Edgerton took scientific photography further by directly considering aesthetics in his making of photographs. He also made imagery for the military and was obviously still working from a scientific perspective. Some of his work as popular as Picasso’s in his time.
Carl Struwe photographing diatom shells.
In the third gallery of the exhibition, there is emphasis on the art inherent in the photograph; it shows work made over last ten years
Sarah Pickering shows a dramatic photograph of light from a gun as it is fired; large and colourful. More like an art object
There is an organic feel to the images
The Kosmos series by Joris Jansen, born 1980, makes micro photographs of negatives, focusing on the materiality of the print
Iris Khan mimics work by Marey and Muyerbridge by using photoshop, “a playful emblem of our own departure from the corpse of photography.”
Hiroshi Sugimoto also remakes old science photographs of electrical discharge.
The primary photo of the exhibition might also be considered as the final one; this is Ori Gersht’s exploding flowers. HERE is a link to a talk he gave recently.
It is interesting to see the way later photographers have appropriated earlier scientific photographs and come up with technologically more advanced images that also develop earlier themes; the most obvious are perhaps those of Idris Khan whose Rising Series has been made with the human and animal locomotion studies of Muybridge clearly in mind.
If I have a favourite set of photographs, it could well be the microphotography of Fox Talbot, not because of their historical importance but because they were made innocently by someone who had no reference to other work. Fox Talbot was not just a scientist, he had artistic qualities and was, of course, a pioneer who covered a number of basic approaches to photography in his wish to prove what the pencil of nature could accomplish although he can hardly have dreamt that it would, for instance, settle millennia old questions about whether a horse ever took all four legs off the ground when galloping which was left to Muybridge to discover a few decades later.
The title of this exhibition REVELATIONS is a perhaps a little misleading; one might be tempted to think of the Book of Revelations or some other kind of religious revelation but the revelations here are not clouded by emotion rather they are insights into the materiality of the world we live in.
We also had a quick look at an exhibition of book awards; the books related to photographs and included a number of photobooks by David Goldblatt as well as other contemporary books about photography.