Photography and Science | Kelley Wilder | Wednesday, 31.10.2012

Image and Practice

On 24 February 1839, Jean Baptiste Biot suggested in a letter to William Henry Fox Talbot that the fixation of exact photographic tonality, the fine shades, (and depending on how you read it, even the fixation of images themselves), was largely a matter for art. Physics, he continued, was more concerned with the use of the instrument – in this case, photogenic drawing paper. Scientists’ comments about photography, like this one from Biot, illuminate historiographical roads not taken, holding out the possibility of adding new strands to the history of photography. Biot’s observation, made in amongst a discussion of Daguerre’s and Talbot’s processes, gives us the opportunity to follow Geoffrey Batchen’s call in his last blog to think about a new sort of photographic history.

If we examine Biot’s words closely and attempt to pick apart the implications of interpreting them in this way, there are clearly two aspects to photography – the image and the practice. Several times, bloggers on this site have written about these two subjects and they occur in countless essays and monographs. Biot, however, raises a curious aspect of the use of photography in science that is not often mentioned, namely that the image is sometimes less of a concern than the process by which it appeared, or the data the process generated. To Biot, the fine-tuning of delicate lights and shades to reproduce the scene to its best advantage was secondary to the data that could be produced by using light sensitive paper. Subsequent conservation of the photographic image might or might not be important. Once measured, evaluated, counted or turned into drawings, many photographic images generated in the sciences are expendable. It explains perhaps why scientific photographs are thrown away at such great rates, and why science museums are often devoid of images generated during scientific investigations.

Turning the focus away from the fixation of the image, and away from the image itself can induce a slight feeling of vertigo. After all, it is inimical to so many histories that the fixing of a photographic image constitutes the moment of its coming into being. Talbot himself tried to claim that it was first the “fixation of the image of the camera obscura” and second the “subsequent conservation of those images” that accorded him the right to priority of invention (Talbot Correspondence no. 3777). Most of our histories divide success from failure along the lines of fixation. The conserved image holds such fascination for us that the mere hint by an auction house of a conserved image by Thomas Wedgwood caused a tempest, although it would have changed our understanding of history not a jot. We know that Wedgwood made such experiments, just as we know that Arago and Fresnel used light sensitive material in their spectroscopic investigations prior to 1820. And yet these practices count for little in the usual reckoning of historiographical importance.

Turning away from the image as the intended end product can be equally disorientating. Of course, there are many instances where the image is equally the target of a given investigation, but it is worth considering the plentiful examples where images are generated, but are valued below the data generated by photographic practices (spectroscopy for instance). Changing our focus would turn us away from a concentration on the type of images generated by photography (objective, mechanically objective, indexical, mimetic) and toward the photographic practices, or as I have called them in the past, photographic methods, of science.

What I hope to do over the course of this blog is to turn the conversation away from the art world and toward an area where photographic practices abound. The rich and intertwined histories of photography and science give us access to the voices and opinions of photographic insiders who have been written off as outsiders. The remainder of this blog will continue to look at the confluences and interdependences of photography and science in order to shed light on what some of these shifts might mean for studying and writing about photography.