Geneva Anderson digs into art

Brought to Light: Photography and the Invisible, 1840-1900

SFMOMA, October 11 – January 4, 2008

Brought to Light, now in its final week at SFMOMA, is one of those shows whose riveting beauty and important subject matter has inspired me to return three times.

Edward L. Allen and Frank Rowell, The moon, made at the Observatório Nacional, Cordoba, Spain, 1876; Carbon print; 20 1/2 x 16 1/4 in. (52.1 x 41.3 cm); Stephen White Collection II, Los Angeles.

Edward L. Allen and Frank Rowell, The moon, made at the Observatório Nacional, Cordoba, Spain, 1876; Carbon print; 20 1/2 x 16 1/4 in. (52.1 x 41.3 cm); Stephen White Collection II, Los Angeles.

Last week, I went with a group of teens who were home on Christmas break and it was a hit.  We lingered, mesmerized, for a good 1.5 hours, trying to fathom the influence these stunning images would have had on their original viewers. The exhibition looks at the use of photography in 19th century science.  It features some 200 scientific photographs and photographically illustrated books from 1840-1900 that were used to document phenomena that were invisible to the naked eye.  From the lacey crystaline delicacy of a snowflake, to the eerie x-ray of a hand with six fingers, to the eruption of cosmic light in the Milky Way, these pictures document the emergence of the camera as an vital scientific tool.  The exhibition is divided into six areas:  the microscope, telescope electricity and magnetism, motion studies, x-rays and spirit photography.  What emerges is a story of interdependence– as a medium grounded in physics and chemistry, photography shaped scientific practice and knowledge as much as it was shaped by them.  There is also progression:  with the microscope and telescope, photos gradually began to substitute for illustration; by the time x-ray images were developed, the photographic image was the only visible record of phenomena that were invisible to the human eye.

Curator Corey Keller, who earned her PhD at Stanford on the history of photography in science, has skillfully connected philosophical debate, popular press and major developments in science.  She spent five years combing through museum archives, mostly in Europe, unearthing images that the institutions had forgotten they owned.  Many of these images have never been seen, except by their creators.   “A major goal is to get people to see photographically what was seen in the 19th century.  You have to understand that this was critical moment in history—everything you learned in 3rd grade science was discovered in the 19th century.   When photography was invented in 1839, seeing and knowing were thought to be inextricably linked; science was primarily influenced by what was visible.  Photography was described as an act of vision and the camera was compared to a human eye, so the photograph would replace the eye of the astute observer on the scene.  There was this idea,” said Keller “that the picture would eliminate the subjectivity and bias of a human observer…that it would be this perfect artist, that there would no be worry about the particularities of the human element.”

It seems evident now, that one of photography’s greatest contributions to science was that it legitimized the scientific method by removing subjectivity-allowing unambiguous recording of observation results as well as unambiguous reproduction of independent results.   Even in the late 19th century, however, well after the photograph had fully penetrated society, photography’s establishment as a tool and object of science was controversial.  There was no agreement on what evidence would constitute proof that photography captured reality accurately.  Maren Groning writes in the exhibition catalog, Photography was “not fully accepted as a means of making precise… images of the visible world and once it crossed the threshold to the invisible, it was thought impossible to prove its scientific basis as reliable and accurate.”  With very few willing to embrace or even consider the medium’s heuristic function, it struggled to gain credibility.

Ironically, the ultimate proof of the scientific community’s total acceptance of photography as a legitimate tool of science came 80 years after photography’s invention, when photographs had the credibility to overturn what was thought to be a fundamental law of physics.   On May 29, 1919, Arthur S. Eddington’s photographs from Sobral, Brazil, and Principe, Guinea, of a total solar eclipse confirmed the bending of starlight by gravity as predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity, overturning Sir Isaac Newton’s concept of the universe and 200 years of science.  On September 21, 1922, the results were again confirmed with Williams Wallace Campbell and Robert J. Trumpler’s photographs taken during an eclipse from Wallal, Australia.

In the 19th century though, the new visual medium of photography seemed a marvel that revealed dimensions and processes at work world well beyond the secure boundaries of the visible and known.  What happens to this metaphor-camera as eye, photography as vision– when the pictures are of things that no one can see, that were previously invisible, no matter how good their eye eight?  What would this mean to a 19th century audience?   “Remember,” adds Keller, “that science and photography have completely shaped what modernity looks like to us.  The photographs here are operating on many levels-they form the very nexus of technology, science and art in the nineteenth century.”  They were made by and for those interested in science but they were enormously popular with the general public who would flock to expositions to see them.  An entire set of curious and changing metaphors emerged over the course of the century to make sense of this medium. The 19th century also saw an explosion of illustrated press due in large part to improvements in reproducing photographs.  ( Science in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical, is a searchable electronic index to the science content of sixteen nineteenth-century general periodicals. )

Artists were heavily influenced by advances in photography…Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (1912) was inspired by Etienne-Jules Marey’s motion studies of a man on a bicycle.  Francis Picabia cited x-rays as his first inspiration for his famous compositions. Vincent Van Gogh’s famous Starry Night (1889) was based in large part on popular astronomy texts and Van Gogh chose to include something in the sky of his painting that had been discovered just months earlier.

Inventions such as the x-ray worked their way into literature as well.  In 1924, in The Magic Mountain , Thomas Mann used the new invention of the x-ray machine to show how Hans Castorp tries to understand life and love in a world that was largely based on common sense and first hand evidence.  Hans was one of the first of his generation to ever see his own skeleton and to gain some understanding of the mystery of life via modern medical science.  Afterwards, his entire conscoiusness deepens.  The tubercular residents of the mountaintop sanitorium Hans visits keep small copies of their x-rays in their pockets, ready to display.  These “intimate” photographs are more precious than conventional portraits.   Hans pleads with his beloved Clavdia to give him her x-ray print as a memento during her absence from the sanotorium.  He pines for her while gazing at the image of her thorasic cavity.  When his own x-ray confirms symptoms of tuberculosis, Hans embraces this as verifiable evidence of illness.

Exhibition walk-through:   Retina of the Scientist

The first two galleries present photographs made with the microscope and telescope-the two most important optical instruments in 19th century science and to which the camera was always compared.  The idea was that photography might relieve the illustrator of the task of having to peer with one eye through the microscope and draw at the same time.  The technical challenges of adapting a microscope for making photographs were enormous: the light that hit the photographic plate and the light visible to the eye focus at different points when refracted through a lens.

Lingering among this impressive collection of micrographs (pictures made through the microscope) I realized how these natural forms -specimens from botany, entomology and mineralogy- are fundamental to our present day notions of ideal organic forms.

Austrian physicist Andreas Ritter von Ettinghausen’s daguerreotype Cross-section of Clematis stem (March 4, 1840) was created just one year after photography was invented.    A five minute exposure was sufficient to reveal the plant’s exquisite cellular structure and organic symmetry.

Andreas Ritter von Ettingshausen, Cross section of a clematis stem, March 4, 1840, daguerreotype, Albertina, Vienna.

Andreas Ritter von Ettingshausen, Cross section of a clematis stem, March 4, 1840, daguerreotype, Albertina, Vienna.

Its star-like center is packed with tiny round globules that seem to pulse.  A series of axis lead to larger chambers packed with the same round cells.

There were numerous images taken and exhibited of creepy crawly hairy biting things– everyday creatures that people might encounter in their house.  Photographers knew that they had to win public over to get funding.  The French amateur naturalist Auguste-Adolphe Bertsch made a portfolio of spectacular pictures utilizing the wet collodion glass plate negative, whose transparency enabled pristine reproduction.  Keller discovered his work in the archives of the Société française de photographie and they are on exhibition at SFMOMA for the first time since their creation.  Bertsch created specimens and enlarged them up to one hundred times for display at the world fair.  His series Birth of a Louse (ca. 1853-57) (albumen prints) relies on polarized light to show the louse emerging from its egg casing.

Wilson Alwyn Bentley’s photographs of crystalline snowflakes reveal their intricacy and delicacy.   Bentley, a farmer and amateur photographer, captured snow crystal forms by lifting each flake up with a splint of wood and carefully transferring each flake to a microscope slide and photographing it.

between 2 3/4 x 2 7/8 in. (6.79 x 7.3 cm) and 3 1/8 x 2 13/16 in. (7.9 x 7.1 cm); Smithsonian Institution Archives, Washington, D.C.

Wilson Alwyn Bentley, Snowflakes, before 1905; Printing-out paper prints; Twelve prints, each: between 2 3/4 x 2 7/8 in. (6.79 x 7.3 cm) and 3 1/8 x 2 13/16 in. (7.9 x 7.1 cm); Smithsonian Institution Archives, Washington, D.C.

He also chased storms and found various correlations between weather patterns and snowflake attributes.

Telescope–race to the moon

Astronomy was most profoundly affected by the telescope and the photography it enabled. One of the greatest questions discussed by leading astronomers such as Dominique Francois Arago who were contemporaries of Daguerre was the size of the universe and the relationship and distance of the stars.   An entire wall of the exhibition is devoted to the moon, the closest heavenly body visible to the naked eye.  Unfortunately, the promise of photography far outstripped its early capabilities and for much of the 19th century, the moon remained tantalizingly out of reach to photographers because insensitive emulsions required very long exposures which could not tolerate movement.  The exhibition includes several rare successful daguerrtypes of the moon taken between 1847 and 1851 by John Adams Whipple and George Phillips Bond (son of the director of the Harvard College Observatory), with Harvard’s 15-inch Great Refractor Telescope.  This telescope was equipped with a mechanism that moved in tandem with the earth’s rotation and the images are remarkable in their clarity of detail and mystic beauty.  These pictures were exhibited at the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition where Whipple won a gold medal for technical excellence in photography and 6 million people would have seen them.   Until the development in the 1870’s of gelatin silver bromide negatives (dry plates) which were highly sensitive to light, photography had a limited contribution to astronomy.

Photography became integral to astromony to observe, measure and document the far reaches of the cosmos.  As early as 1889, George Ellery Hale conceived of the spectroheliograph, an instrument that allowed the Sun to be photographed at a particular wavelength. Hale also designed an appropriate telescope to which it could be attached. In 1908, he found that some of the lines in the spectra of sunspots were double. Hale realized that this demonstrated the presence of strong magnetic fields in sunspots, being due to the effect discovered by Pieter Zeeman in 1896, and was the first indication of an extraterrestrial magnetic field.

Electricity and Magnetism

Although electricity was an ongoing topic of curiosity in the general population during the 19th century, most serious research was conducted in laboratories where photography aided in understanding electrical phenomena.   Taking pictures of electric sparks, lightning and magnetic effects gave scientists tools with which to study and interpret electricity.  These photographs, often visually stunning, were tremendously popular, giving visual form to phenomena that had never been observed clearly.  A photograph of an electric current running through the hand was revolutionary….the person would hold some type of electrode and a very mild electric current was sent through and they would  put their hand in contact with the plate.

Lightning was a very popular subject for amateur photographers and a curiosity among the general population who had heard stories of people being struck dead by lightning.

William N. Jennings, Ribbon Lightning, ca. 1885, gelatin silver print, George Eastman House, Rochester, NY, gift of 3M Company, ex-collection Louis Walton Sipley.

William N. Jennings, Ribbon Lightning, ca. 1885, gelatin silver print, George Eastman House, Rochester, NY, gift of 3M Company, ex-collection Louis Walton Sipley.

Artists had long depicted lightning as a zig-zag bolt coming out of the sky, probably because the human eye could not move fast enough to actually process what was happening.  William N. Jennings was thought to be the first to photograph lightning in 1882.  His photographs showed that lightning took many forms but none of them were a zig-zag.  Ribbon lightning was caused by wind moving across the path of lightning in space.

The Franklin Institute archives contain a fascinating 1922 essay  “The Work of William N. Jennings in the Photography of Lightning” along with his photographs and findings and many responses to Jennings’ work.

Even after 120 years, Etienne-Leopold Trouvelot’s “Trouvelot figures” are so seductive that they were selected for the exhibition catalog cover and t-shirts.

Etienne-Leopold Trouvelot, Direct electric sparks obtained with a Ruhmkorff coil… ca. 1888, printing-out paper print, Musee des arts et métiers, Conservatoire national des arts et métiers, Paris.

Etienne-Leopold Trouvelot, Direct electric sparks obtained with a Ruhmkorff coil… ca. 1888, printing-out paper print, Musee des arts et métiers, Conservatoire national des arts et métiers, Paris.

Trouvelot used photography to illuminate the mystical and invisible world of  electricity. Drawing on the earlier experiments of Eugene Adrien Ducretet and of George Christoph Lichtenberg, in the late 1880’s Trouvelot used a photographic plate with its emulsion side in contact with a electrode and was able to create stunning sinuous lines and branches of actual electrical currents that instead of being in air were visible on the plate.

Motion studies

Before the 1870’s and the invention of more sensitive dry plates and mechanical shutters that moved more rapidly than the human eye, moving things showed up poorly in photographs.  Early daguerrotypes frequently have headless children.  Both accomplished photographers and trained scientists saw motion as a means of further expanding photography’s capacity in artistic and scientific applications and were intent on improving the technology to enable this.

When railroad baron Leland Stanford hired Eadweard Muybridge to settle a bet about his horse and to test his hypothesis of unsupported transit, which held that when all four hooves of a galloping horse left the ground, they were tucked under his belly rather than splayed out like a rocking horse, Muybridge failed several times.  In 1878, he succeeded in freezing the motion of horse in mid-stride.

Eadweard Muybridge, Bouquet with rider, ca. 1887; Collotype

Eadweard Muybridge, Bouquet with rider, ca. 1887; Collotype

Using trip wires and a battery of cameras with automatic shutters, he was able to document the movement of a horse across time and space.   He published his results and gained great fame as a lecturer in America and abroad.  His continuing work with motion eventually led to his invention of the “zoopraxiscope,” a moving picture machine that showed a rapid succession of images.  With the help of Thomas Eakins, Muybridge found sponsors at the University of Pennsylvania and continued to take thousands of locomotion studies of men, women, children, animals and birds. The results were published in an epic portfolio Animal Locomotion, 781 folio prints after his photographs.

The French physiologist Etienne-Jules Marey was heavily influenced by Muybridge. Marey’s chronophotographs (multiple exposures on single glass plates and on strips of film that passed automatically through a camera of his own design) had an important influence on both science and the arts and helped lay the foundation of modern motion pictures.

Etienne-Jules Marey, Flight of a heron, ca. 1883, albumen print, Joy of Giving Something, Inc., New York.

Etienne-Jules Marey, Flight of a heron, ca. 1883, albumen print, Joy of Giving Something, Inc., New York.

Marey’s stunning Flight of the Heron was made with his “photographic gun.”  A forerunner of the motion picture camera, it had a sight and a clock mechanism and made 12 exposures of 1/72th of a second each.   Marey’s observations about the changes in the shape of birds’ wings in relation to air resistance were vital in understanding the phenomenon of flight.  Marey’s subsequent findings regarding motion were used by the French government to improve military training and by the American efficiency expert Frederick W. Taylor to streamline industrial production.

X-ray and spirit photography

The discovery of x-rays at the end of 1985 by Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen came at a time when medicine was increasingly linking specific diseases to changes in the body’s internal organs. The stethoscope had enabled examination of the chest using sound, but x-rays provided an image.  Rontgen stumbled upon the discovery while investigating cathode rays with Crookes tubes.   He sent a copy of his findings, “On a New Kind of Rays,” along with copies of an astonishing x-ray of his wife’s hand-all that was visible were her bones and her wedding ring–to six of the most important physicists in Europe.  A media frenzy ensued extolling the ray’s ability to penetrate opaque substances.

Josef Maria Eder and Eduard Valenta, Chamaeleon Cristatus, 1896; photogravure

Josef Maria Eder and Eduard Valenta, Chamaeleon Cristatus, 1896; photogravure

Within a month of this discovery, Josef Maria Eder and Eduard Valenta published a text and 15 photogravures made from x-rays with pictures composed for maximum aesthetic impact,  immediately popularizing these magical rays.

The cultural impact of the x-ray was enormous–Victorian morality was challenged by the indecent ray which cut through clothing and was rumored to be capable of capturing impure thoughts.  By 1897, x-rays were used on teeth to identify remains, to distinguish natural from cultured pearls, and to inspect an Egyptian mummy.  In 1898, The Emperor and Empress of Russia had their hands x-rayed to see their own bones.  In medicine, however, the x-ray was quite slow to take off because it required a doctor to put faith in a document that neither he nor she could corroborate in any other way.  Surgery was performed and the x-ray was compared to what had actually been observed.  Up until WWI, x-rays were not used regularly for diagnostic purposes.

The x-ray’s influence on artists was widespread and grew as time passed- Frantizek Kupka (1871-1957), Francis Picabia (1879-1953), Marcel Duchamp (1887-1976), Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) are among a number of artists whose work was heavily influenced by the x-ray.  Now, a century later, we are still mesmerized, consumed, by images of our body’s interior.. and it is these images  which still have the power to embed themselves in our consciousness.

Spirit photography

Many of the people involved in or researching the occult movement were also leading scientists of the day.  What we see in the pictures on view in this section is an aesthetic relationship to many of the scientific pictures seen elsewhere in the galleries.  The 19th century science posed a tremendous threat to the authority of traditional religion.  Spiritualists found inspiration in photography’s invention. They recognized the power of science and co-opted both its language and its techniques to lend credence to their own claims that even the supernatural-human auora, spirits or even thoughts– could be verified.  Photography bridged the gap between different times and places (the past and the present, the distant and the near), analogous to the bridge between heaven and earth.

The idea of taking photographs of spirits burst into public notoriety in 1868, when William Mumler, a Boston engraver whose wife was a trance medium, exhibited what purported to be photographs of spirits.  He had been experimenting since 1861, with varied results.  Mumler began charging his customers for a séance/photo session and made a lot of money.  In 1872, he was found by the courts to be a fake. His efforts did not take place in a vacuum.  By the 1890’s, spirit photography was a fad and darkroom tactics such as double exposures were routinely used to create deliberate pictures of ghosts, readily acknowledged by their creators to be the product of their darkroom manipulation.  In parallel to obvious attempts at trickery, other photographers were capturing unexplained images for the sake of serious research on the occult and the trend continues today.        Geneva J. Anderson

The exhibition travels next to Vienna’s Albertina Museum from March 20- June 6, 2009.

January 1, 2009 Posted by | Art, SFMOMA | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment