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The Many Forms and Meanings of the Scientific Image

Seeing Science from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is a yearlong online project that explores photography’s role in defining, promoting, and furthering science.

Thomas Smillie, cyanotype of taxidermy at the Smithsonian (1890) (via Thomas Smillie Collection, Smithsonian Institution/Wikimedia)

When NASA reported a record number of astronaut applications last February, the space agency cited its popular social media presence for helping to triple the figure since its last recruitment. NASA’s over 18 million Instagram followers, for instance, can glimpse in its feed a day’s space walk or a coronal hole traveling across the sun. Photography has long been a medium for communicating science to the public and for scientific investigation. Images shape our understanding of research and technology, as well as our place in the universe.

Seeing Science is a yearlong online project from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), with the Center for Art, Design & Visual Culture (CADVC). Curated and produced by Marvin Heiferman, it’s a portal for the diverse roles and influences of the scientific image. “Part of what interested me is, I started out doing lots of art and museum exhibitions, but what fascinated me about science imaging in particular is its consequentiality,” Heiferman told Hyperallergic. “The active nature of images, the active role that images play in shaping culture, is what I think science images are doing more and more.”

Seeing Science from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)
A flying pelican (1882) photographed by Étienne-Jules Marey (via Wikimedia)

Heiferman noted that many art museum exhibitions on scientific photography tend to focus on the 19th century and then track progress into the present. This approach is partly represented in Seeing Science. An interactive timeline begins in 1021, with Arab physicist Alhazan’s description of a pinhole camera and camera obscura, and culminates in 2016, with a camera the size of a salt grain that can be injected into the body. Yet Seeing Science is more focused on what artists and photographers have created around ideas of science, along with how scientists have presented themselves and been portrayed in pop culture.

For example, artist Oliver Wasow’s Picturing Science involves groups of themed images from online sources, including scientist biopics and remote wildlife photography. Short essays from contributors working in the arts, humanities, and sciences cover such subjects as early films that featured science and technology, the historic relationship between science photography and art museums, and Berenice Abbott’s photographs for scientific publications. Weekly mini-exhibitions have recently highlighted Nick Bowers’s 2014 series Scared Scientists, for which he asked his subjects to contemplate the implications of their findings; Nancy Burson’s pioneering 1970s experiments with MIT engineers to morph faces to simulate aging; and Thomas W. Smillie’s 19th-century shots as the first official photographer at the Smithsonian. Ultimately, a book will be published with some of the material in Seeing Science.

Seeing Science from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)
Page from Photographs of British Algae (1843) by Anna Atkins (courtesy the New York Public Library)

“The reason for it being a year long is because we want it to grow and evolve and see what happens,” Heiferman said. As a website instead of a physical exhibition, Seeing Science can continually be updated in response to current events with a strong photography connection, whether that means developments in climate change or newly detailed views of outer space. Why We Look, a section that grew out of Heiferman’s Twitter account, highlights articles on advances such as innovative brain scans and viral images like one of a bird wearing goggles to protect its eyes from lasers in a photography experiment.

“I’m always interested in people talking about photographic images, the power of images, and how they work, and I think that the more ways you look at how photography is used and how it functions, you get a better idea of what makes it powerful,” Heiferman stated. “There are not enough places to have a discussion about the various ways images work in terms of the sciences and photography. They both kind of created each other in this symbiotic and consequential way. ”

Artist Oliver Wasow’s Picturing Science project on Seeing Science, with images for “scientist biopics” (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

Seeing Science can be visited online through the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

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