Photography and Science | Kelley Wilder | Wednesday, 05.12.2012


The next two blogs will deal with the often conjoined activities of observation and experiment, as they pertain to photography and science. They are significant in thinking about photography because they are so very bound up in the arguments about photography’s supposedly prickly relationship with art.

Observation is of course much older than photography. When photography was invented it slotted into perceived ideas about what good observation entailed. The arguments and history for this have been recently reviewed in Daston and Lunbeck Histories of Observation. What is interesting in the announcements about photography’s potential in the sciences was the repeated rhetoric that one also finds in advocates of observation as a scientific method at the time. It was democratic, all encompassing and above all, enlarged the potential membership if the very exclusive fraternity of capable observers by being so ‘easy’ to work. (Of course, early photography was the least easy thing to work, but the rhetoric at least promised ‘ease of use’). Daston and Galison have written comprehensively about the close connection that was made to the mechanics of photography. The fact that it was mechanical ensured (as far as the rhetoric was concerned) distanced, objective looking, but it also ensured a kind of looking-without-pause that resulted in comprehensive looking in a way that fatigued and fallible humans could not achieve, however much they aspired to it. Photographic looking was democratic in its registration of detail, and unflagging in its activity. It also held out the potential for observing and recording at the same time. Photographic records were then both the product of observation and the target of further, or continued observation. They represented two layers of observation, one made at the moment, and all subsequent observations.

It is important that we think about the broader ramifications of treating photography like the perfect observing tool. In order to do this, scientists had to couch photography in terms of a passive device (intervention on the part of the photographic machine would be just as bad as human intervention, skewing the objectivity of the observation). The problem with designating photography qualitatively as a passive device is that it is then very difficult to recategorize it in terms of a creative art, with all the intentionality that implies. The result was, in the nineteenth century arguments about art photography, decidedly mixed. Some artists, Emerson in particular, argued first for the capacity of photography to be a medium of intentional expression, then, partly informed by Hurter and Driffield’s findings in sensitometry, denying it on the basis that its mechanical limits limited his freedom of intentional expression.

But what is most disturbing is the leakage of this notion of passivity into photographic history. Very rarely do we consider the agency of the photographic mechanism itself. It is this that Charlotte Bigg so neatly addresses with her analysis of the ‘mise en observation’, the setting of the stage to make certain observations in Histories of Scientific Observation. Early scientific proponents of photography ignored the sheer amount of stage setting that goes into making photography work at all. Light and other radiation has to point in certain directions, scientists have to limit it, capture it, portray it, and in doing so they make a hundred different adjustments to their observation. Sometimes, if they are using commercially made film or software, they allow industry to dictate the parameters within which they can observe. As these parameters are often more stable than any hand-made photography could be, they are part of the necessary stage setting.

So the designation of photography as an observing tool is fraught with complications, and scientists and photographers also soon realized it, if they had indeed ever completely bought into the rhetoric in the first place, something Jennifer Tucker has adequately thrown into doubt. But the lingering and sometimes even pervasive notion of the passivity of photography (its mechanical nature) continued to be a problem in the arts, and is not so difficult to find this rhetoric alive and kicking today.