Life Lit Up

Photography and the Scientific Spirit

October 30, 2015 — February 21, 2016

“I like the scientific spirit—the holding off, the being sure but not too sure, the willingness to surrender ideas when the evidence is against them: this is ultimately fine—it always keeps the way beyond open—always gives life, thought, affection, the whole man, a chance to try over again after a mistake—after a wrong guess.”—Walt Whitman

The unifying element of PHOTOGRAPHY AND THE SCIENTIFIC SPIRIT is that all the works in the exhibition characterize invention and imagination in a manner described by Walt Whitman as “the scientific spirit.” Furthermore, the sixteen photographers examine the interrelated history between photography and science in their work as does their historic predecessor Berenice Abbott, whose work is also included in the exhibition. Finally, these photographers make art in which the scientific or photographic process, or both, is as inventive as the images themselves.

When the camera was invented in the nineteenth century, it was believed to be a machine that, in part, produced an empirical form of pictorial representation for scientists. The use of photographs, they thought, eliminated problematic human interference in sciences that required objectivity. Whereas earlier pictures (such as drawings or paintings) were believed to be made or “willed into existence,” photographs were understood as just the opposite, obtained or “taken” like natural specimens found in the wilderness.

Today, we understand that photography is fallible when it comes to objectivity and truth, even when science is involved. Nevertheless, the integral relationship between science and photography that has existed since photography’s origins has remained intact in spirit. Berenice Abbott remarked over fifty years ago that photography’s “dualistic science-art aspect, is the index of its contemporaneity. It took the modern period, based on science, to develop an art from scientific sources.” It was, in fact, Abbott who pioneered investigations into the relationship between photography and science beginning in the twentieth century. About her goals she wrote, ”There needs to be a friendly interpreter between science and the layman. I believe photography can be this spokesman.” A small selection of Abbott’s photographs ranging from the 1940s to the 1950s will introduce viewers to PHOTOGRAPHY AND THE SCIENTIFIC SPIRIT. Many of the artists in this exhibition cite Abbott’s work as influencing their own.

The artists express the relationship between science and photography in a number of different manners. For some, the artists themselves take on the role of scientist (indeed a number of the artists studied science or are practicing scientists in addition to being photographers). They perform creative scientific experiments and capture them using photography. Caleb Charland expands upon a classic grade school science project, the potato battery, creating electrical current by inserting a galvanized nail into one side of a piece of potato and a copper wire in the other side. In one work, Charland electrifies a chandelier hanging in apple trees using the power of the fruit, and in another, a floor lamp in a field is illuminated by the potatoes underground. David Goldes’s photographs are inspired by his research into nineteenth-century drawings—before photography—of electrical experiments performed by scientists such as Humphrey Davy and Michael Faraday. Goldes photographs electrical experiments of his own invention that use simple household objects. Other artists work directly with scientists and make art in response to their discoveries. For example, Rachel Sussman’s series is the result of research, work with biologists, and travel in remote parts of the world to find and photograph, as her series title explains, The Oldest Living Things in the World. A number of artists invent or alter photography’s chemical or mechanical processes and even build cameras, as in the case of Chris McCaw. McCaw’s hand-built, large-format cameras are outfitted with powerful lenses typically used for military surveillance and aerial reconnaissance. Instead of film, McCaw inserts expired vintage, fiber-based gelatin silver photo paper directly into the camera. Pointing the lens at the sun, McCaw exposes the paper for periods of time ranging from fifteen minutes to twenty-four hours. Such long exposures intensely magnify the sun’s rays, which literally burn through the surface of the paper, thus making tangible, in scored markings, the trajectory of the earth’s orbit around the sun.


Berenice Abbott (1898–1991), Brandon Ballengée (NY), Matthew Brandt (CA), Thomas Brennan (VT), Caleb Charland (ME), John Chervinsky (MA), Adam Fuss (NY), David Goldes (MN), Jay Gould (MD), Sharon Harper (MA), Martha Madigan (PA), David Maisel (CA), Chris McCaw (CA), Meghann Riepenhoff (CA), Abe Morell (MA), elin o’Hara slavick (NC), and Rachel Sussman (NY).