An early morning train ride to London, a tube to Kensington High Street and a walk to the Science Museum. Manage to arrive with 15 minutes to spare but longer would have been better. Find a seat near the front though the blue lighting from the walls does not feel comfortable. We are given an A4 print out that is our ticket and details the event; a member of staff comes around and hands us out a glossy magazine that is an advertisement for the Science Museum but has nothing to do with the symposium we are attending.
The subject for the day is early scientific photography, it’s importance for the creative arts and the way it’s meanings have shifted across time. A young woman and former model now science student I met on entering tells me that after seeing the exhibition she feels she has to know more; my interest is more that of someone who photographs nature and wants to understand the medium better. For instance, why has nature photography been largely rejected by the art world which does however draw inspiration from it.
Kate Bush, head of photography at The Science Museum, introduces the event.
The first series of talks is about exhibiting science.
The first speaker David Mellor from the art history department of Sussex University, starts by referring to radiation and recalls a film he saw as a child. There is a box that cannot be opened but someone does, a theme that recurs in later films. Shows an image that looks like a rosebud but is in fact an atomic explosion caught at the very beginning; from a movie by Edgerton of an explosion in the desert. Picture of a camera used by Paul Strand for special events; example of shifting change of camera technology. “Wundergarten der Natur” by Blossfeldt is an example of the fascination with nature. Mass Observation was a social survey movement in the 1930s. Helen Chadwick is a photographic artist who also explored science; she died early in 1996. Photograph of a brain held in human hands. A Pembrokeshire landscape with traces of her own blood smeared across it! Chadwick worked in scientific laboratories. Best writing on Blossfeldt is by Walter Benjamin! Shows more images from the film he saw as a child.
Kelly Wilder is researching science photography. What exactly are science photography exhibitions? They can vary. The topic of “how science photography became visible” needs to be interrogated. Particular social and cultural meanings as well as a particular audience involved. Mentions Fox Talbot and his work which included his exhibition of photographs that were originally concerned with the advancement of science but in more contemporary times, the artistic side is being emphasised. What ought science photographs look like? They teach us a way to look at the world. The latticed window negative made in August 1835 was the first; it is shown in the exhibition to let us know what such a negative loosk like. Antoine Claudet had learned about the Daguerrotype from Daguerre himself; worked in the UK. Strong link at this time between photography and science with photography being seen as demonstrating science. Frederick Evans made scientific style photographs that included a notion of beauty. This kind of imagery already appreciated before the Modernists; beautiful but not picturesque.
The Aesthetics of Wonder by Corey Keller from SFMOMA. She has curated Francesca Woodman also the San Francisco earthquake of 1896. Curated well known exhibition, “Brought to Light: photography and the invisible 1840-1900 ” mention Film undo Foto exhibition from Stuttgart in 1929. Importance of photography to contemporary society and need to understand it. Discards notion of photography as a realistic representation of the world. History of Photography published by Newhall has become a classic; he was advised by Maholy Nagy. Lack of photography in terms of pure aesthetics? Too much focus by Newhall on the machine precision in photographs. Szarkowski broke down the medium into different terminology which is outlined in his book The Photographer’s Eye. Are scientific photographs art simply because they are chosen by an art gallery? No! Early photographers of the West such as Carleton Watkins did not consider themselves as artists though the prints they made can be considered so. In the 1960s photography not recognised as an art yet by the end of the millennium it was.
Szarkowski was not interested in accurate representation of objects rather their artistic portrayal. Max Wolf photographed the Milky Way in 1903 for its’ beauty not science. Van Gogh’s Starry Night from 1889 is an example of the importance of scientific imagery of the day.
Visions of the Universe by Marek Kukula who is the public astronomer from the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. Aware of beauty in astronomical images but not able to talk about that as not scientific. After meeting photographer Wolfgang Tilmans, Kukula realised he was effectively a photographer in his recording of the stars. Astronomy has always been a visual science and the observatory is starting to think more deeply about this. Has attracted both painters and photographers. There used to be art about the solar system in the mid-nineteenth century. Astro photography is moving on and has become an annual photography competition since 2009. Not just interesting scientific observation but also artistic representation. Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year winners announced in September. Visions of the Universe exhibition in 2013. Herschel an example of astronomer who payed a part in photography; there are others. Elizabeth Kessler has written about this kind of photography; link with sublime in art. Ansel Adams has inspired scientists working in space. Putting science images in an art gallery; did not just want to attract science geeks but also art lovers. Creating a contemplative space in the gallery. Breeze Little website for seeing astronomical images from exhibition. Putting the human element back into the landscape, a theme of contemporary artists. Are these scientific images art? Perhaps not but they can be described as artistic. Are our intrusions onto other planets creating a kind of land art!?!
Discussion. The camera does not see the world as scientists do! The Hubble however sees the world in a more real way than we do! The notion of reality is a moving target. What Galileo saw did not chime with what the church thought. Different views of same subject. Value of seeing nature or science represented. Fox Talbot surrounded by art and those who loved it which effected his view of things. Scientists also aware of the human potential in the imagery they are discovering and creating. Artistic interpretation not supposed to be scientifically accurate which could be boring. Data being used differently to way originally intended. Art work does not have to be of scientific value. Has digital photography helped to increase our knowledge of science? Yes, it has. Digital photography is much more rewarding to scientists than film. Digital is more objective! Can never make anything entirely perfect. Photography still limited by personal choice and the need to sell cameras. Often people are ignorant of a way to understand images. Lots of things one can do with images.
There is a short break for lunch during which I reflect a little on what is being said; in fact, we get only about half an hour instead of an hour and this prevents me revisiting the exhibition. The “scientists” who are dominating this discussion it seems, are very matter of fact about things yet art tends to take a more open approach, less deterministic. I hear someone complaining that there is too much beauty in a lot of the images but wonder what interest there would be from a larger audience if beauty was not there. Does not the artist have the right to discover the visual beauty inherent in science!?
After our lunch, we come back to another set of talks, this time about Modernisms which has already been touched on with references to Maholy-Nagy. Marta Braunis from Ryerson University who has written about Meyer among others. Meyer was more a scientist than a photographer, photography being something he used in his experimentation. Made images to record body movements. Recorded internal movements of body as well as animals and people. A revolutionary method of photography to capture action. Meyer had scientific aims rather than photographic ones. What we call scientific has developed over time.
John Blakinger is from Stanford University and doing a PhD. A clean cut American. His talk is Pattern Formation: art and science in the Cold War. Mentions the New Landscape exhibition from 1951 curated by Gyorgy Kepes in 1951. Revealed an entire world not seen before since it showed inner landscape of tissues to landscapes of outer space. Electrical discharge on electronic plates. Original presentation with juxtaposition of images. From the infinitesimally large to the infinitesimally small. Kepes had worked at the Bauhaus under Maholy-Nagy. Reconciling art and science. Gropius has written about the alienation of the artist in the scientific age of the 20’th century but argues for the need of art as an essential counterpart to the scientific age. Using abstract images for creative thinking. Importance of visual design not necessarily from art but from the eye. Perception is subjective not objective. Education of The vision of the eye. Idea of a common pattern. Learning to see democratically through visual fundamentals. Photographs jarring the self, making modern man more flexible, breaking mental rigidity. Physiognomic perception rather than a mechanistic view of the world. Pattern seeing and form thinking. Sibyl Maholy-Nagy did not encourage Kepes and saw his work as irrelevant but later reiterated after seeing the danger of technological ideology particularly in The Vietnam War.
Discussion Instrumentalisation a keyword in this subject. A lot of Kepes pictures are quite benign, simple such as twigs and branches. Other imagery is much more complex, further removed from the everyday. If a camera can capture what is invisible then why should it not capture the spiritual. The artist is someone who can convey the spiritual. Cameras do not have artistic sensibility yet this does not mean they should be rejected. Kepes concerned with making meaningful images but people reject such ideas in the academic world and elsewhere. Suggestion that the Family of Man was a weapon used in the Cold War to advertise the American view of the world over the Soviet one.
We break for tea and this time get a chance for a chat amongst ourselves. I say hello to a photographer and we are joined by someone called Claudia Fahrenkemper from Düsseldorf. I ask her if she has ever heard of the Düsseldorf School of Photography. She most certainly has since she is also part of it having been tutored herself by the Bechers!! Looking at her website, I can not help but admire her photographs made in the style of Karl Blossfeldt.
The final part of the day is about contemporary art and chaired by Lewis Bush who I met at the Photobook last year; he was there again this year but I did not talk with him.
Ori Gersht is the first speaker. Interested in optics and the interplay of shadow and light. Shows a Goya painting from early 19’th century; he is said to have witnessed the Napoleonic executions. He also refers to another painting, this time by Manet, which is also of an execution but made in a less dramatic way; Manet was not there but heard about it. Both pictures are about the moment of execution. The first event was pictured before the invention of photography, the latter after it. Gersht shows a Fenton photograph from the Crimean War in which we see a scattering of cannonballs; it was made 10 years or so before the Manet painting which is exploring the photographic implications of the medium. Presently, technological change is rapid and a similar occurrence happened in the early 19’th century when photography was invented. When human sperm was first seen under the microscope, the observer expected to see little humans! The famous Capa photograph of the Fallen Soldier which was made at a time when the photographer was able to move with the action; Capa has captured someone suspended between life and death! Gersht shows one of his flower bouquets which he made after analysing work of painters. Trying to depict the moments made by old masters but revealed in a different way as a result of usingmedern technologies. Gersht shows another floral bouquet painting that he has copied; in this instance, he has focused more on the colours in the image and trying to recreate those rather than the form as he did previously. His well known exploding images of floral bouquets were made using a digital Hassleblad. The means of production is important to Gersht. Interested in the pixel, the atomic particle that helps make the image. The image is presented in such a way that it can never be comprehended holistically!? New work concerns Breughel recreations. Again colourful bouquets that create a certain illusion. Made bouquets with an assistant out of synthetic materials which were then placed in front of mirrors to further encourage the illusion. A highly complex set up with more than one camera and a room with mirrors for walls. Looking at the result one can see something that is beautiful like the original it is copied from; this seems to be art that progresses, not just a copy but a work that surpasses it’s predecessors! Shows photo of an olive tree made in Israel. He shows a film of exploding flowers which contains audio of the shattering glass. One camera focuses on the reflection of the flowers while the other focuses on the flowers themselves. Gersht talks well beyond the time allotted to him and it seems if would go on even longer if allowed; the final movie is of exploding and imploding portraits which reveal some hideous if not haunting aspects to the faces portrayed which hint at unconscious forces at work within the sitters; the accompanying music is similarily eerie. Ori has to be asked to stop!
Sarah Pickering graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2005 and has made numerous exhibitions and won awards. Honoured to be part of what is considered a landmark exhibition. This talk by her is about influences on her work such as the camera and the gun, a visual essay. Cites Edgerton who shot a bullet through a lemon; she shows her photo called Muzzle Flash which was made by firing a gun at night. Etienne Jules Marey also mentioned along with the machines he used. Images of devices used to hold cameras steady which one would not use today. Sarah shows work that has influenced her such as a journal called Blasy from the First World War of which three were only two editions. Other exhibits are drawings including one by Andre Mare which is a Cubist painting. Lynne Cohen another influence; how the world echoes art. Mike Mandell and Larry Sultan Evidence book of 1977. Roman Signer Tent 2002 shows exploding tent which he escapes from. Chickens scared by a torpedo is a work by Muyerbridge. Sapphire and Steel was a movie in which Joanna Lumley starred. Photos of gunfire photographed that is available online; muzzle flash increases for effect; images can look like cosmic formations. John Martin’s apocalyptic paintings from the 19’th century. Www.spacetelescope.org aka European Space Telescope. Pickering’s work are often colourful and imaginative lacking in obvious detail. Shows photos of one of her exhibitions. Shows work from another series called Black Hole. 3D printing another step in the evolution of printing. Another image which is shown here as a movie is called Forger’s Palette from her series Art and Antiquities 2011. Photography is ubiquitous which Pickering enjoys. Another series is Explosion 2009.
Ben Burbridge. From Sussex University and has played an important part in the Revelations exhibition; he has been working on it for 7 years. After the future; a scientific turn in contemporary art. Shows photographs from the exhibition Revelations that I have already seen and commented on sometime ago. Modernism treated natural forms as emblems of the new. Auratic fragments of history! Forms of vision artists have been drawing upon no longer constitute the new. Cultural history exerts a powerful influence. The allegorical nature of these images, art historical illusions. The New Landscape in art and science by Gyorgy Kepes is again mentioned. Some see that we are again living through a revolutionary moment in which new technologies are making social and cultural changes. Artistic pictures created by recording natural movements in the skies and elsewhere. “Warning shots fired from the past into the present …”
Discussion; it starts after the symposium should have ended. Art a desire to recreate the act of creation. Making works of art not indulgent rather an essential activity. Something primal. Understanding a particular aspect of contemporary art. Art tends to get used for all kinds of things. Not really apocalyptic! Beautiful images but they signify something. Mystical spillage and desire for technological efficiency. Pushing technology over threshold so that original nature of photography can be revealed.