With a major new exhibition at the Museum exploring the fertile ground in photography where science and art meet, Co-curator of Revelations: Experiments in Photography Dr Ben Burbridge looks at how scientific endeavour has had a profound effect on the visual languages of art.
The new Media Space exhibition, Revelations: Experiments in Photography, tells the story of artists’ changing engagement with early scientific photography, tracking a path through modern, postmodern and contemporary photographic art.
The first room of the exhibition, entitled ‘Once Invisible’, draws on the rich holdings of the National Photography Collection and the Science Museum collections to explore how early scientific photographs expanded the field of vision during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
These photographs show the astronomically distant and microscopically small, reveal the nuances of rapid motion, and record the presence of invisible energy sources such as radiation and electricity.
After installing this part of the exhibition, it struck us once again how truly strange these images still seem, and quite how alien the world can appear within them.
Highlights include William Henry Fox Talbot’s exquisite photomicrographs, Arthur Worthington’s innovative use of flash to study the forms produced by splashes, Henri Becquerel’s photographs demonstrating the radioactivity of uranium salts, which border on abstraction and photographs by Étienne Jules Marey.
“Unlike Eadweard Muybridge, who had no interest in science, Étienne Jules Marey was a qualified doctor and there would have been no Italian Futurist movement without his extraordinary influence. Marey’s representation of locomotion and the movement of animals and human beings is wonderfully exhibited here – perhaps for the first time publicly. There are very few exhibitions where you can see his genius.” – Sir Jonathan Miller, speaking at the opening event for Revelations: Experiments in Photography
The pictures can be understood as both product and emblem of an extraordinary moment when new technologies changed experiences of the world in fundamental ways. They are best understood in relation to a wider technological landscape, which included the development of telegraphy, telephony and inter-continental rail travel.
The second room is entitled ‘The New Vision’. Here, visitors are presented with art photography made during a period spanning from the early twentieth century to 1979. It provides a rare opportunity to see iconic and lesser known works informed and inspired by the types of scientific imagery presented in Room 1.
Drawing on numerous loans from museums in the USA and Europe, ‘The New Vision’ includes work by László Moholy-Nagy, Man Ray, Laure Albin-Guillot, Carl Strüwe, Alfred Erhardt, György Kepes, Harold Edgerton, Berenice Abbott and Hollis Frampton. Seeing these important works come out of shipping crates and onto the walls was a memorable experience.
Many of these artists were drawn to scientific photographs based on the formal principles they suggested, particularly the radically abstract language they made available. For some, the photographs were also symbols of broader changes to culture and society: in the scientific photographs, technology helped to reveal and record things that could not be seen by the naked eye. The abilities of man were surpassed by those of machines.
‘The New Vision’ maps a course through twentieth century art, revealing a gradual shift in the meaning of science and technology. Painted in crude terms, it signals those ways in which an initial enthusiasm gave way to pessimism and uncertainty during the period after the Second World War.
Entitled ‘After the Future’, the final room focuses on the resurgence of interest in the revelations of early scientific photography within areas of art photography today. It includes works by Walead Beshty, Ori Gersht, Sharon Harper, Joris Jansen, Idris Khan, Trevor Paglen, Sarah Pickering, Clare Strand and Hiroshi Sugimoto.
By setting the contemporary work apart from that of the modernist artists in Room 2, we highlight the gap that separates our own moment from theirs, and the fact that the earlier photographic experiments no longer represent the vanguard of visual culture.
The exhibition thus concludes by posing a series of questions: If the early scientific photographs no longer symbolise the new, what do they mean for artists working today? And what should we make of the widespread interest in the earlier forms and techniques evident in the work of so many contemporary practitioners?
In reply, we point to the wider contexts that may have informed this ‘scientific turn’, particularly the rapid expansion of networked digital technologies, and the profound changes to photography and culture this has involved.
By reflecting on artists’ glance back to photography’s past, we hope to gauge something important about photography’s present.
Revelations: Experiments in Photography is at Media Space until 13 September 2015. Click here to book tickets. An accompanying book edited by Ben Burbridge, entitled Revelations and co-published with MACK, is available to buy online from the Science Museum Shop. The exhibition transfer to the National Media Museum, Bradford where it will run from 19 November 2015 to 7 February 2016.