Photography and Science | Kelley Wilder | Thursday, 13.12.2012

Reflections on the Effect of Photography on the Sciences

In this last blog I want to turn the conversation toward something that has lately occupied me in my writing and thinking about photography and photographic practice. Many of the arguments put forward in the previous posts are deeply informed by the notion that photography is not passive. It is not only the case that we do things to photographs – look at them, hold them, talk about them, exchange them, archive them and so on, but that photographs also cause us to do these things, or modify our behaviour in some way.

There has been a lot of excellent literature written lately about how photographs (and incidentally film too) do this, by Lisa Cartwright, Elizabeth Edwards, Joan Schwartz, Gillian Rose and others, all of them investigating aspects of the same argument, so my take is not a new one. Nonetheless, when it comes to science, more often than not, photography is cast in the supporting role. It is presented as a ‘tool of science’ or a ‘recording device’ employed by scientists. There are countless narratives about the ways in which science has made photography what it is – some written from the point of view of scientists and others from the point of view of photo historians. In this blog I want to talk briefly about how photography has made science what it is.

There are several ways one could go about considering photography’s effect on the sciences but it seems important to specify a time period first. From the 1890s to the 1960s (and perhaps a bit beyond these dates) science photography and photographic science experienced an ascendency that saw them at the forefront of many new and exciting avenues of research. Take the X-ray for instance. The simplicity, and eventually the cost effectiveness of X-ray photography revolutionized not only diagnosis but also medical research. No longer did surgeons require live patients to prove the effectiveness of a certain procedure – photographs, in this case X-ray photographs could serve the same purpose. But they also produced an effect. Whole body X-rays, while they were made, were not common. Only a part of the body, the teeth, the leg, the hand and so on, were commonly the subject of the image, effectively dividing human bodies into photogenic portions.

Then there is also the rise of the illustrated science journal. Especially in the case of high powered journals like Nature, where research must really be depicted on the front cover, photography plays a role in the visibility of certain types of research. The knock on effects of this visibility might be that certain types of research, because they are more ‘visible’ receive more funding, and are therefore broadened merely because they are in some way susceptible to photography.

Neither of these areas is, however, as powerful as the effect that the growing photographic archive has had on the sciences. In some sciences, the photographic archive has constituted the field, and in others it has recast it in a new form. Some older photographic archives have been digitally incorporated into contemporary databanks, like the Carte du Ciel’s incorporation into the Hipparcos Catalogue. Like astronomy, geography benefits not only from photography, but from an extensive photographic archive made over the years. Part of the reason that photography is so important to consider in these sciences is the way it enables and encourages comparisons. This LANDSAT image of ten years ago, compared to that one can tell a scientist something. Comparison is one of the methods that the medium of photography itself encourages by bringing things of various sizes and locations together in a similar format. But we have yet to study the implications of the photographic archive with respect to these types of methodologies. If individual photographs are not passive, what should we say about the workings of photographic archives, and what has been and continues to be their effect on the sciences?

I shall be reading and responding to the blog past December the 15th, so please do feel free to comment past this weekend.