Revelations: Experiments in Photography, Media Space, Science Museum-London

Study Visit- June 2015


This was the second of my OCA study visits and it proved to be a very valuable and engaging exhibition visit. Led by tutor Robert Enoch, we were a small group of just five students. The small size of the group, the excellent company of the other students and Robert’s helpful guidance, challenging questions and tutorial style made for a very rewarding learning experience. Well worth the 275 mile round trip I have to make to get the capital.

In all frankness in this blog entry I won’t be able to do justice to the rich experience that I believe this exhibition offers to anyone with an interest in photography as a science, photography’s history or photography as an art form. I will however try and give a little bit of the flavour to the exhibits and say something about what I learned and how the study visit has influenced me.

Revelations_21_KateElliottCopyright the Science Museum, London

My first observation is that this was well-curated exhibition. It had for me a clear narrative as I moved through the three separate but linked galleries of the exhibition. To me it is a narrative that tells the story of photography’s early application as a tool of exploration and discovery right from its earliest days. The exhibition moves on to the experimental search for new aesthetics that both mimic, challenge and at times parody the medium’s scientific heritage. It also suggests in some ways that the medium might be considered as coming full circle, although not all with agree with this idea. But I say this because within the final gallery of the exhibition the work is highly exploratory and experimental, work that raises issues about how we see and perceive the world. How photography as art practice not only continues to reveal things to us visually but how it forces us to re conceive what we think we are seeing and what we think we are experiencing. For me there was sense of revelation that ran through the whole exhibition, a linking thread that made the exhibition very coherent.

So, to describe some of the exhibits, their organisation and their impact. In the first gallery there was very much an ethos of photography as a medium of scientific exploration and discovery. Intertwined with the history of photography there were a whole range of scientific discoveries.

The narrative of the exhibition in this first gallery was one of making the invisible possible to see. From its inception in the first part of the nineteenth century early proponents of photography were pushing the boundaries of the technology of the day to reveal things never before seen. And whilst I can look on their work with my 21st century knowledge and understanding some of these images must have been truly a revelation in their time.

Berscht’s images of a House Mite under 50x magnification and his cross section of a stalk of wheat revealed a perspective on the world that at the time must have appeared remarkable. Simultaneously beautiful, revealing and educative, this work demonstrates how the medium was put to work to assist in understanding the world. Photography again is used as a tool to make the invisible visible. And not just to a few, but through the use of the print available for anyone to see. Similarly Dyson’s images of the solar corona, taken during a total eclipse, provided evidence of the complex nature of the sun, a sight previously only seen by those wealthy enough to travel the globe to see these rare events in person. There is a whole other strand of issues and ideas about how photography ‘democratised’ knowledge, which in the previous times would have been only known to an elite few, but that is for another time!

The theme of the investigation of the very small and the very large also runs through the first gallery with images of the very small things, insects, animals plants recorded under magnification and images of the heavens taken through high magnification, providing an insight into the distant and massive

An excellent example of the latter is Common’s group of three images of the Orion Nebula. These were taken using progressively longer exposures with his 36” telescope and show how as the exposure time increased the level of detail seen in the nebula reveals itself. By the third image a wealth of structure and scientific information that was hidden to the eye is captured on the plate in the camera. This set shows the boundaries of the medium being pushed to reveal hitherto hidden sights in the heavens.

Magnification was not the only tool used by early photographers. Draper’s image of the solar spectrum, isolating individual elements in sunlight, shows how applied photography started to reveal the universe at an atomic and elemental level.

I was also drawn to the daguerreotypes of the moon by Adams, protected in their beautiful padded and decorated cases. I have seen many daguerreotypes, but usually portraits, the half moon image captured on the metal surface of the medium was an entirely different use of this early technique. T

The Becquerel images of beta particles transported me back to A’ Level physics lessons some 35 years ago!

Perhaps some of the most well known images in the gallery were Muybridge’s photographs recording motion. Images that at the time revealed the intricacies of movement, a further example where photography allowed for new levels of understanding and insight into the physical world.

On entering the second gallery we encountered an excellent set of Moholy-Nagy photograms running across the first wall. To me they demonstrated a new exploration, this time not scientific but artistic, using the medium to test the boundaries of art. They were also interesting in the context of the whole exhibition, given they were made without a camera. Not far from them were some Man Ray photograms. Both sets of images highlighted a period in art and photography when the materials of the medium formed part of wider experiment in what constituted art. I am aware from reading about Moholy-Nagy, that making photograms was an activity he asked all the students who worked with him to undertake. He was keen that through this practice they gained understanding about the nature of material and the nature of light.

György Kepes unusual photograms gave the sense of having been created in three dimensions and like his Bauhaus contemporaries, the work seemed to explore the nature of shape, space and design. I am not at all familiar with his work and resolved at the exhibition to go and look into this work in more detail. A further blog entry will follow!

Berenice Abbott’s work was particular appealing and was both scientific and very aesthetically pleasing. Her images, taken while working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were undertaken for a publicly funded science textbook. They illustrate a range of scientific laws and principles. In particular her image of light passing through a prism with particles of dust captured in the illuminated beam were beautiful monochrome pictures. Her time laps images of objects in motion were also things of beauty. These high contrast monochromes, capturing the beauty and symmetry of objects in motion would in my view be just as much at home on a gallery wall as in a physics primer. Art and science combined in a thing of beauty!

This gallery also contained a number of reasonably large-scale examples of Edgerton’s work showing bullets passing through fruit. These ballistic experiments, presumably to test the effects munitions have on materials of different types hint at a dark purpose in their motive and background? I had seen these images in books but on a larger scale and in person they had a strangely artistic quality, there was a sense of satisfying composition in the placement of the objects and the high speed capturing of the moment that the bullets emerged from the fruit. As a group of us gathered around this work there was an interesting discussion about was there an artistic motive over written on the scientific purpose of the shot. It was interesting to consider Edgerton’s motives for just how he had set the shots up. Again, art and science intertwined in a thought provoking set of images. I also have to comment on the Edgerton’s ‘Milk drop’ images, freezing the moment after a splash. These would have been pushing the boundaries of the technology of the time in the use of high-speed shutters and strobes in perfect sync. Things that we might take for granted now.

What I liked about this second gallery was that I was familiar with quite a number of the works but only from small pictures in books, it was a rewarding experience to see real examples of these photographers work in the flesh. What was clear to me about Edgerton’s and Abbot’s work in particular, was that the small text book pictures I had seen before simply do not do justice to the scale and beauty of this work.

Revelations_14_KateElliottCopyright the Science Museum, London

The final gallery of the exhibition houses a range of very contemporary work. As you arrive at the entrance you are greeted with a giant painting like image that from a distance I thought was an image of a galaxy or nebula. As it turned out it was not. This large image was actually Pickering’s ‘Muzzle flash’ capturing the moment after the trigger is fired on a pistol, the bright light of the discharge of a bullet from the muzzle illuminates the gas created when the bullet was fired. Was there an element of homage to Edgerton in this work, where interestingly unlike Edgerton’s images no bullet can be seen? It is a bright and intriguing image; all the more ambiguous because it is one of a set entitled Celestial Objects. Reflecting on this work I can only assume that Pickering’s motive as suggested by the title is to mislead the viewer. I noted in my pre reading before the visit that the curator of the exhibition suggested that this work ‘misdirects’ the viewer’, I certainly experienced that misdirection.

This theme continues in Jansen’s large images nearby. Even from a few metres away I thought was looking at pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope. I think we have become accustomed to the colour palette used in Hubble images to reveal the distant universe, there is a sort of visual conditioning we pick up through the media, Internet and other means of viewing images. Jansen’s work is actually close up images of the surface of chemically based photo prints. Whilst he mimics the colours of the cosmos as seen by Hubble, we are actually looking at the surface of quite mundane photographs and how they degrade. I found this visually very engaging, but was left with an uneasy sense of perhaps having been manipulated by the artist. Is Jansen using the medium to educate, dupe or explore, I am uncertain? I am certain that this work made me think though!

Keeping with what seemed to be a developing astronomical theme in the final gallery the two large-scale images by Paglen really made me think as well. Using very high magnification optics designed for astronomical imaging, Paglen turned these on secret US military sites. Paglen who is a geographer as well as photographer has produced a collection called: The Dark Geography of the Pentagon’s Secret World. One of the images in the exhibition looked at first glance like a layered landscape abstract. On closer inspection a series of distant and blurred military vehicles photographed at a supposedly secret base could be seen. The other work was a cloud scene that at first glance appeared to have no real subject or composition. One of the other students reminded me of Steiglitz’s ‘Equivalents’ series when we had been discussing an image in the first gallery of the exhibition. This Paglen image was very different though; a tiny spec in one corner drew our attention. When looked at closely it was the silhouette of a plane or more probably a drone. The initially benign image then takes on a very different meaning. Paglen’s work is clearly deeply political, again the boundaries of the medium being explored.

‘Blow Up’ by Ori Gersht was perhaps the image that dominated the final gallery, this massive scale painting like picture taken with specialist high-speed equipment and techniques records the destruction in a controlled explosion of a bunch of flowers that had been frozen in liquid nitrogen. Shattering like a ceramic bouquet, the work has links to the fruit and flower painting traditions of 17th and 18th century northern Europe. Gersht’s work is clearly highly experimental and emblematic of the whole exhibition, as this was the image in the advertising of the event.

Learning Points

This was an excellent study visit really made valuable by the company of the other students and Robert’s excellent guidance through the whole exhibition, asking key questions and making linkages to work and practice beyond the exhibition. It was a very interactive learning experience.

In reality I have only really scratched the surface in this blog entry of the visual and intellectual interest this exhibition provided and I will try and return to it before it finishes in September. There are however some key areas of learning that are at the forefront of my thinking at this stage.

It is clear that since its inception photography has been a medium of exploration, there is also for me a continuing dialogue between art and science, given both digital and chemical photographic process rely on science irrespective of the output from the image maker. It might be argued that photography sits at an interface between art and science with valid and continuing roles in both fields. I also want to return to the notion of photography as a medium that ‘democratises’ knowledge. Perhaps the best example of this in the exhibition is Abbot’s work for the physics primer textbook. I need to explore this notion further.

At the start of the study visit Robert asked us to consider whether photography is a ‘plastic’ medium in the way that painting or sculpture might be considered plastic.

I left the exhibition with a resounding sense of ‘yes’ to this question. Photography presents almost boundless opportunities to view the world and for me one artists work epitomised this plastic nature of the medium.

Walead Beshty’s two large-scale images in the final gallery called ‘Transparency’ really attracted my attention and interest, particularly around Robert’s question.

WALEAD BESHTY Transparency (Positive)-0               WALEAD BESHTY Transparency (Negative)-0

Copyright Walead Beshty

The images were not taken with a camera but were recorded on two separate sheets of 5×4 film. One was Fuji transparency film the other Kodak Portra negative film. They had been packed (I assume in a double dark slide) in the bag of artist. What was recorded on the film were the effects of x-rays as the bags and by default the film passed through scanning machines labelled as ‘film safe x-ray machines’. In the tradition perhaps of Man Ray and Moholy-Nagy, these ‘x-raygrams’ raised for me lots of questions about travel, about security, about honesty, about transparency (as in the title) in the political sense, and about creativity. The strange asymmetric geometry recorded on the images through their travels in space and time had a really interesting effect on me and highlighted the possibilities of photography to communicate ideas. I have spent much of the last week pondering on this work specifically and as an outcome of the visit will, when time permits, explore this work and its possibilities further.

Like other students at the event I am keen to experiment more, but also to think about the purpose of the images that I make. A theme that I feel unites the earliest image makers in this exhibition with the most contemporary, is a clarity about the purpose of their work, whether that is a Fox Talbot image of the wings of a moth or a Jansen image exploring our perception of photography as medium.

Revelations (1 of 1)

All in all this was a very stimulating and exciting experience. I try to write a blog entry soon after a visit but it has taken me a week to process and consider what I saw and to plan and write this entry. A measure for me at least at how thought provoking this exhibition study visit was. I have to conclude with a huge thanks to my fellow students on this visit and to Robert for his fine job creatively marshalling us all through the work.


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