The X-ray had just been discovered when two Austrian photochemists used the emerging field of photography to create what are still some of the most beautiful captures of the hidden interior world of organisms.
The National Media Museum in Bradford, England, holds a portfolio of Josef Maria Eder and Eduard Valenta’s 15 images for their 1896 publication Versuche über Photographie mittelst der Röntgen’schen Strahlen, which has recently undergone conservation and will go on display next year. The text that goes along with the images is fairly straightforward technical information on X-rays, which had been discovered just months before by Wilhelm Röntgen in late 1895, but the visuals are surprisingly elegant.
Röntgen had been trying out a Crookes cathode-ray when he produced the X-ray, and when he took the first photograph with the electromagnetic radiation of his wife’s hand, she reportedly recoiled, exclaiming: “I have seen my death!”
Eder and Valenta also included skeletal reveals from beneath the human skin, using photogravures, a photo-mechanical process predating the daguerreotype that uses a copper plate printing process. Eder had already been a leader in intensely documenting photography’s technical history, and with fellow chemist Valenta they used the photogravure combined with the X-ray to capture the interiors of a lizard with a winding tail, a rat with its ears still barely visible, a foot with a crooked toe, and even inanimate objects like leather and rocks.
As Ann Thomas wrote in Beauty of Another Order: Photography in Science: “Composed with simple factuality and a brilliant luminosity, they show just how exquisitely the stark graphic contrast of black, grey, and white typical of X-ray photographs could be translated in the delicate linear and tonal range of the photogravure process.” It might be easy to forget, but viewing these detailed photographs is likely the first time most people had seen the living workings of the body, and they do so beautifully, and with an obvious curiosity about suddenly being able to see what was previously invisible.
Josef Maria Eder and Eduard Valenta’s X-ray photogravures are in the permanent collection at the National Media Museum (Bradford, West Yorkshire).