6. Reflections on the Effect of Photography on the Sciences
Published: 13.12.2012
in the series Photography and Science
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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.

2 comment(s)
Charlotte Cotton
Posted 17.12.2012 at 21:14

Dear Kelley,

You’ve taken us readers of your blogs on quite a journey and a well paced one that concludes with some ambitious and powerful ideas about photography. In your previous blog post [number 5] you helped me to consider photography as having the capacity to be fundamentally experimental, rather than just the photographic result of experimentation. By the time I read your current post, I felt fully briefed by you to accept the idea of photography as having its own impact and influence upon scientific investigations rather than simply a tool in the service of science. I am grateful to have your perspective upon scientific photography and one that argues for an idea of photography as a radical visualising medium, important when it is not simulating human vision or illustrating scientific data that exists in another form.

It is interesting that you specify that your perspective concerns scientific photography from 1890 until the 1960s. That cut off point resonates with me in part because of the years in my past of curating exhibitions that offered a chronological experience of ‘the’ history of photography. Every time I reached the selection process for post-1960s photography, there was always a sense for me of a history that explodes into a number of trajectories and a definite sense that a linear history of photography is inadequate in representing late 20th century photography’s cornerstones.

The main reason that your blog posts have been so intellectually stimulating for me is that they are so in tune with the contemporary possibilities to re-evaluate photographic history. There is, for me, a Vilem Flusser-esque confidence in the independent intelligence of photography at play in how I have read and enjoyed your blog posts. In my optimistic library of how we can now think and assess the value of photography, your posts sit alongside Click! Photography Changes Everything, the website and now published book that was creatively directed by Marvin Heiferman. This project, which includes contemporary perspectives on scientific and medical photography, similarly engages us with how we can evaluate photography when our perspective is not clouded with anxieties about whether photography is art – or not. Thanks again, Kelley, for your timely thoughtfulness.

Kelley Wilder
Posted 02.01.2013 at 15:12

Thank you Charlotte, for your thoughtful considerations and questions and challenges during this blog. Your observation that a description of post-1960s photography is hampered by the many directions photography and photographic history suddenly take is one that we should take very seriously. As photographic history education has lagged behind, photographic output has intensified in its complexity. It is something we need to remedy as a matter of urgency. In writing this I am doing no more than echoing Geoffrey Batchen's plea at the end of his stint on the blog to think of now as the time when our approach to history of photography changes.

Click! certainly does present an excellent way into historical issues, thank you for mentioning it as many readers will find it a very rich source for considering different approaches to photography - I do certainly. Perhaps you are right that we are moving past issues like art/science, seeing them for the historical constructs that they are. This increasing confidence is also reflected in the many new methodological approaches adopted by younger (and older!) photohistorians. Thank you too for stimulating my thoughts and pushing me to consider different perspectives in the course of this blog.

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