Experiments have traditionally been set in opposition to observation, although more recent scholarship has begun to seriously question that neat categorization. If photographic observations, the subject of the last blog, are messy, then experiments seem to be even more so.
Most of the photographic experiments I have looked into fall into the very early years of photography, with the exception of the atomic particle work and nuclear emulsions. Many of them involve radiation of one sort or another, often light, but often also heat. Quite likely the most famous of these is the one prosecuted by Sir John Herschel and still preserved at the St John’s College Library in Cambridge, on the subject of ‘exulting glass’. Herschel made many chemical experiments with photographic and organic substances (a notebook with many of these is preserved in the Science Museum Library, London), in order to see what sort of effect light and various types of glass had on them. When he read his paper before the Royal Society in March 1839 – the one where he used ‘photography’ as a name for the ‘new art’ – he used his experimental findings to argue for the presence of a glass that increased the exposure time of silver salts in sunlight. He recanted this opinion before very long, but it was nonetheless a breakthrough moment for experiments done with a photographic method. But was the piece of photogenic drawing paper he attached to his lecture notes an experimental photograph? Or had it already wandered away from these roots into a specimen to be observed, or an archive in the way of a notebook, recording results?
The problem is really how you define an experimental photograph. Is it experimental if it was part of the experimental apparatus originally? Or does it immediately become a specimen, an output, that can be observed, kept and published, and therefore something else entirely? Some of these questions were recently addressed in an issue of Fotogeschichte (31:122, 2011) where the notion of photographic experiments incorporated thought experiments, experiments by institutions employing photography in scientific ways, and photographic methods employed in experimental science. In this way, photographic ‘experiments’ cover a good deal of ground. While it is true that this range reflects the polysemic function of photographs, it also represents a certain unease with the notion of photographic experiment.
If we take, for instance, photographs like Herschel’s (again here I’m using the term ‘photograph’ in the broadest possible sense) exulting glass experiment. This experimental tool very quickly became an object of Herschel’s observations, while also becoming a record of the experiment itself. Although the photograph is an integral part of the experiment, it is also many other things immediately related to the experiment. How do we reconcile these multiple functions with calling a photograph ‘experimental’? Perhaps we can’t. When photographs are inserted into experiments, the recording function is integral to that experiment.
This might be why so many controls are put into place when dealing with photographs as a scientific tool. The controls might take the form of rigorously controlled settings, or camera format and placement, standardized films, or any combination of these. Still, any number of controls will not discipline the use of these photographs in archives. In fact, it seems precisely the power of photography to allow itself to be cast in different roles that makes it attractive to users of all sorts. The continuous tension between disciplined meaning and unruly reinterpretation seems often to be a driving force in the creation of photographic archives. It holds out the promise of discovering ‘something else’ in the future – answering some need unseen at the time of making the original experiment.