Photography and Science | Kelley Wilder | Thursday, 22.11.2012

Photographic Practice and Photography

Since we are following a trajectory in this blog of asking what it might be like to explore photographic history from a look at particular photographic practices, I want to address one of the comments in the last blog here in a whole new thread. In the last blog, Ulla Fischer-Westhauser rightly brought up Marietta Blau and nuclear emulsions. Although that was written in a context of visible/invisible, the example of nuclear emulsions and Marietta Blau, Cecil Powell, Pierre Demers, Kodak and Ilford makes an excellent jumping off point for discussing exactly the differences Ulla is (rightly) concerned about between photographic practices and the more general sense of photography.

Peter Galison has written most extensively about the nuclear emulsions in ‘Image and Logic’ and since the students in Zurich are reading exactly this chapter for today’s seminar, it is useful to use his book as a reference point. Perhaps the most useful observation for writing a new sort of photographic history is Galison’s assertion of the hopelessness of telling an isolated history of the emulsion technique (cf. 146). It would involve dismissing war, gender politics in science, and the industrial secrecy of photographic giants Kodak and Ilford for a start. His statement might just as well describe the impulse behind the movements for studying visual culture and Bildwissenschaft; an expansion of art historical investigation to the surrounding world of images and image making and cultural and industrial history.

The nuclear emulsion story is interesting because it brings up not only the manipulation of photographic emulsions to create designed tools – Photographic Practice and Photography Galison calls the emulsions “chemical ‘devices’” (143) – for recording nuclear events, but also the industrial and often military context in which they take place. As numerous artists have shown, photographic surfaces can reproduce images made by any number of organic substances (Adam Fuss’ animal entrails being a spectacular example), and all sorts of energy like heat and electricity and radioactivity, that are not light. Not only scientists, but emulsion scientists understand this too. Blau herself noted the correlation between photographic change and scientific change in a publication of 1931 (Galison, 149). The fact that Blau involved Ilford, and the UK Nuclear Emulsion Panel later pitted Ilford and Kodak against one another in a race to the best nuclear emulsion, shouldn’t come as a surprise. Industrial chemists and physicists working in the research labs of these companies were interested in both outcomes – the scientifically possible and the practically marketable.

The people who create photography for everyday use are often the same people who work to stretch the photographic surface out of all recognition. Sometimes the stretching process gives rise to commercially marketable films, sometimes not. The Lumière brothers, for instance, worked closely with Parisian scientists. This fluidity between the experimental and the marketable is what leads me to call photographic methods in science (that’s what the scientists often called them) just plain old photography. That is, images made with photographic methods are, to me, photographs, even if they are only meant to be counted then discarded, or measured and discarded. To me, isolating photographic practices from photography seems equally hopeless in the construction of a history, which is why I think it is useful to look at science in order to understand photography, and to look at photography in order to understand science.