Elizabeth Graves reviews a book of inspiring alternative process images with a surprising emphasis.
Harmonies of Art and Science
One of the largest and most inspiring collections of alternative process prints I have seen in recent years is published in the wonderful book, Photography and the Invisible 1840 – 1900, published in 2008 by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and edited by Corey Keller. The book was published to coincide with a spectacular collection of prints gathered from an international range of collections, which was shown at the museum from October 2008 through January 2009.
The exhibition and book have one major, unifying theme: photographic documentation of phenomena which are not visible to the naked eye.
The exhibition was especially popular with families, yet suffered from a traditional controversy as old as photography itself: are the gorgeous images on display science or art? If they are scientific, why are they being shown in an art museum?
Many of us who had some training in art or art history perceive photographs as a primarily artistic development. We are taught about photography in relation to other visual arts, especially painting. The work we usually study in an art history context owes its conceptual development to the arts that came before it. We study photographs as replacements to painted portraits and landscapes, and so we are drawn to photographs that emulate painterly styles with soft focus lenses and lyrical colors, photographs that were intended to be hung on walls or above mantelpieces. Even when we study scientific works, such as Anna Atkin’s cyanotype photograms of plants, we usually consider them aesthetically.
Photography has had other contexts from its beginnings, however. This new form of recording the world was naturally seized upon by both professional and amateur researchers of all types as a scientific tool, as photography itself was born of the sciences of physics and chemistry. It was seized upon for its potential to record scientific information that was previously illustrated laboriously by hand for educational and reference purposes in areas such as botany, zoology, archeology, and astronomy. In these fields, where photography was prized for its objectivity, its reach extended beyond the traditions of art to record not only the world as we saw it, but the world as it existed beyond the sight of human eyes.
The book and exhibit emphasize this use: photography as a means of recording phenomena that move to quickly, too slowly for us to perceive directly, phenomena that are too small or large for our eyes to take in, and phenomena that extend beyond the range of visible light.
In this respect, as a means of representation of information, photography was truly revolutionary. To record a moonrise as a streak of light seems natural to us now, but before long exposures, this was not the recording convention. Drawings and paintings used idealized images of the world as your eye saw it over the course of a long gaze, not over the course of hours – nor in fractions of a second. To our eyes, the moon is always some fraction of a circle, no matter how long we look at it; to our eyes, the legs of a horse move in a blur, not in dozens of precise configurations. Artistic conventions provided idealized representations of natural phenomena such as snowflakes and lightning; photography changed our view of these things by providing information on their actual structures, varieties, and movement in scale and in increments of time we would not see otherwise.
State of the Art Versatility
The antiquarian processes we think of as "slow" were up to a surprising range of scientific recording and educational tasks, once specialized equipment was available. It is possible to make daguerreotypes and carbon prints of the surface of the moon; woodbury types of the surface of the sun; and calotype negatives of the enlarged wings of moths. Glass plates were employed to capture images for salt prints of magnified insects, albumen prints of crystals and electrical charges, and collotypes of horses in motion.
This collection shows alternative process images in the refreshing context of serious scientific tools, equal to the tasks and challenges of recording the natural world. The essays in the book note that not all processes were compatible with the science’s goals – it took many failures before synchronously moving equipment could be devised to make a clear daguerreotype of the moon, for example – but that this inspired innovations that we still use today, such as astrophotography tripods. This is a reminder of what these processes and tools are capable of. You do not need a digital camera to record the flight of birds, or a lunar eclipse – such images are possible on a technologies that have been available since the 1800s.
The introduction to the book notes that this collection of images is fundamentally modern, because photography itself has given us the conventions by which we now define our modernity. In this context, these images do not feel "antiquarian" or "alternative" – they feel modern, scientific, and quite aesthetically pleasing.
The aesthetics are another great success of this collection. The original prints on display, and the reproductions in the book, are stunning. The beauty of the images, whether gelatin prints of lightning or albumen prints of a heron in flight, are remarkable. Some images are clearly more informational than beautiful, but the same could be said of much contemporary art today. In this respect, the controversy over the question of whether the images are art or science is unnecessary: so many images succeed on both levels, regardless of their original intention, that it hardly matters.
The book contains several informative essays on the use of photography, and the plates are organized by the subject of the photos. The major themes are microscopes, telescopes, motion studies, electricity and magnetism, x-rays, and the very quirky category of spirit photography, an effort by enthusiasts to document unseen phenomena of religious beliefs. This is one of the few books where the process used to print the image is very clearly named. The processes represented are wide-ranging and impressive. While the book has no index, there are footnotes, an extensive bibliography, and a detailed summary of the catalog.
If there is anything I learned from this remarkable book and its related exhibit, it is that the techniques we are using from different time periods have a history of lively, interesting, serious, modern applications. We should not feel limited in our application of these tools in any respect. If amateur photographers of the past could use these tools to document the structure of snowflakes or the shape of lightning (and some of the most famous images of those subjects were created by amateurs), we should not feel restricted in our subject matter or explorations in any way, regardless of the tradition – scientific or artistic – under which we have been taught.
Photography and the Invisible 1840 – 1900
A very peculiar and interesting book to read.