Christin Müller
☰   Texts DE


Scientific images are fascinating because they show things and processes that remain hidden to the human eye. Photography makes it possible to delve ever deeper into micro- or macrocosms and capture them in images. However, to describe photography as merely a visual research aid does not do justice to the medium. Photography’s role in science is as multifaceted as science’s influence on photography. Developing scientific practices have continued to place new demands on the capacities of the medium since the invention of photography in the 1830s, and have led to a continuous fine-tuning of the photograph’s possibilities. Science thus produces images based on utterly different premises than those of documentary, advertising, or artistic photography. Cross Over – Photography of Science + Science of Photography addresses the essence of this delicate relationship between science and photography, the various established modes of visualization, and how photography has helped further scientific research.

The exhibition and the accompanying catalogue take a five-part look at photography’s role as a visual explorer in science. Whereas historical visual documents contextualize photography in the realm of science, contemporary photographic positions mirror the materials and methods of science and thus play with the defining boundaries of scientific photography. 

The chapter Einblick / Insight offers a view of the microcosm. Created with the help of microscopes, countless images of plant parts, liquids, cells, or insects bear witness to the close cooperation that took place between researchers and photographers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They also reveal a fascination for patterns that verges on an artistic sense for decoration. Photographs used to explore the qualities of materials or the tiniest movements of particles convey the complex experimental set-ups created in physics laboratories to test hypotheses or establish new ones. Beginning in the late 19th century radiation photography literally opened up a look inside; with X-ray photography it became possible to see inside bodies and things. At the same time fluidal and spirit photography sent science on a metaphysical and speculative course.

In Ausblick / Outlook the direction of the gaze is reversed. This chapter addresses the exploration and mapping of the macrocosm, the distant and the foreign. Astronomy utilized photography from the very moment of its invention. Scientists use giant telescopes to look into the sky and study planets and stars, both from their own observatories and on numerous expeditions to observe solar eclipses. The history of astronomical photography, however, is one of failed attempts. In contrast to the conditions in microscopic photography, distant heavenly bodies are very dark, and the first daguerreotypes of the moon were blurred by its own movement. From early on the development of cameras and photographic mechanisms tended towards complete automation, to the point of a robot assuming the role of the photographer, as in the 1978 Mars probe. Photography was also quickly implemented in ethnographic research; foreign peoples, crafts, and rituals as well as the surrounding landscape were photographically recorded on expeditions across the globe.

Attempts to establish orders of classification, analysis, and systematization are explored in the section Durchblick / Overview, which foregrounds the taxonomic relevance of the medium. In medicine, photography enables a comparison between different diseases and their symptoms. In forensics, a crime and its traces can be tracked from a number of perspectives. Images of rapid sequences of movement or slowly emerging processes make it possible to follow procedures that are normally imperceptible to the naked eye due to their different speeds. Such image sequences are used in environmental research in order to observe external influences on the change in the landscape, or capture faster processes in chronophotographic studies by breaking them down into individual images.

Selbstblick / Self-Examination deals with how science represents itself. The tools of the researcher’s trade, the nature of laboratories, and the actions that take place inside them have an inherently theatrical quality, and are rarely seen by the general public. Instead, the images that reach the public eye present research results or the portraits of scientific protagonists and the apparatuses that define their specific field. 

In the last section of the exhibition the perspective is again inverted. Reflektierender Blick / Self-Reflection focuses on photography’s legibility and examines photographic parameters as well as the shift in such parameters within an experimental context. The investigation of the functioning of the photographic eye is exemplified in the study of light, the photograph, and photographic errors. Or in reaching the limits of the medium, such as when the silver in photo paper is replaced by fast dyes, or little black squares overtax the chip of a digital camera and produce swaths of color. The historical photographs shown here represent only the tip of the iceberg. These are images that have been preserved in museums and archives, compiled in private collections, or which have survived multiple clearing out processes in research institutions. They testify to completed experiments that were followed by new ones as well as photographic innovations. How should we read these photographs? What defines the specific quality or material of such images? An approach based exclusively on a purely aesthetic study of the image would be as inappropriate as a purely technical analysis. Instead, Cross Over interrogates the interplay between the fields of photography and science and the challenges to this historical relationship presented by contemporary photographic positions.

Place of Publication
Cross Over – Photography of Science + Science of Photography, ed. by. Christin Müller and Fotomuseum Winterthur, Leipzig 2013, pp. 5-7
Links (external)
Fotomuseum Winterthur