Essays

How Rosalind Franklin’s “Photo 51” Told Us the Truth About Ourselves

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Rosalind Franklin and Raymond Gosling, “Photo 51” (courtesy King’s College London)

Beautiful, isn’t it? Peer deep into this photograph’s heart, eye, vanishing point. Despite the beauty, no hammered stare, of any length, unlocks meaning or maker. The image (inviolate) defies casual analysis. Perhaps, you wonder, identification of topic or photographer is irrelevant. No clues visible (except perhaps to a biologist). Ah, now you read the label. The shoulders sigh (aesthetic surmises fade), the eye winks (no joke), and a scientist strides onto the stage and grips the podium (serious stuff).

The iconic X-ray diffraction photograph of DNA taken by physical chemist Rosalind Elsie Franklin (1920–1958) might seem timed to the season. Auld lang syne, and all that. The genetic material glimpsed in Photo 51 connects all living things and the image thus metaphorically captures human past, present, and future. It also marks an important milestone in science. In the last half-century, research that drew from Franklin’s photograph has brought advances in biology, medicine, paleontology, and many other parts of life.

Under a microscope, cells reveal their own truths, possessing the potential to separate conception from context. By convention, science (which makes the invisible visible) renders the visualizer invisible. Discoveries are disassociated (divorced) from he (or she) who stained the cell, mixed the reagents, pushed the buttons, coded the data. In an era when cameras record every baby step and every entertainer’s misstep, it may be difficult (if you are outside that world) to comprehend a culture in which (in theory) the photographer does not attach to the image. Analysis matters. Publication matters. Claiming credit first matters. The photographs themselves are allegedly, well, just part of the work.

This particular image had led Franklin to conclude in 1952 that the strands of DNA might form a helical structure but she was cautious and wanted more data. And therein lies the back story: Franklin’s own vanishing point.

Novelist Josephine Tey once accused historians of flattening the past into a “peepshow,” drawing historical actors as “two-dimensional figures against a distant background.” Let us pull Franklin into the foreground, replace the center of the image with her face (three-dimensional), and consider whether knowing about the photographer matters.

In January 1953, Maurice Wilkins, one of Franklin’s colleagues in the laboratory at King’s College, London, shared her photograph (without her knowledge) with two other scientists also in the DNA hunt. James Watson and Maurice Crick (the men who, in another famous picture, seem to be ogling a curvy “double helix” model as if it were a naked Venus) interpreted the image (and other material attributed to Franklin). Watson, Crick, and Wilkins raced into print, pushed Franklin aside, and achieved fame and fortune. Franklin was allowed to stand at the back of the stage: her article was the third in the journal issue. Watson’s arrogant dismissal of Franklin’s work continued for decades after her death. Credit should go to the flyboys, the creative geniuses, not the others. “Technical stuff” was “woman’s work.”

Franklin had grasped the image’s essential truth, before others saw it, but the Nobel Prize is not awarded in memoriam. Die too soon and you never get to wear a fancy dress. Watson, Crick, and Wilkes made the list four years after Franklin’s death. It is left to history to reconsider (some would say “redress”) such matters. Scientific encyclopedias up through the 1990s included “Franklin, Benjamin” but not “Franklin, Rosalind.” Newer works now recognize Rosalind’s contributions and dissect the social and cultural attitudes that reinforced and stood silent at her marginalization.

The notion that a photographer’s identity might, as a matter of cultural practice, be detached from her photograph may seem an anathema within the world of art, where exhibitions celebrate the vision of those who hold the cameras, even if their names are unknown. Credit is a cultural practice: a matter of grace and humility when shared, a matter of despicable boorishness when unfairly stolen. Fortunately, there is a form of historical geometry: a line (reinforced) attaching Franklin to this photograph and its meaning in time.

At first glance, such context remains obscured from the viewer. The photograph’s mysterious, cloudy strands wind themselves around our eyes and engender thoughts of beauty. But for those who value integrity, well, pull on that line and reach for Rosalind Franklin. No vanishing point to memory or to our common humanity. Credit due.

This essay was originally published by the Hillman Photography Initiative at Carnegie Museum of Art, which investigates the life cycle of images: their creation, transmission, consumption, storage, potential loss, and reemergence. For more on the Initiative and to offer public commentary on this image, click here.

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