Seeing Science: How Photography Reveals the Universe

Seeing Science: How Photography Reveals the Universe
by Marvin Heiferman; foreword by Scott Kelly

Aperture and University of Maryland, Baltimore County, 2019
224 pp., illus. Over 300 b/w and 4 col. Trade, $39.95
ISBN 978-1-59711-447-9.

Reviewed by
Ana Peraica
December 2019

To understand yet another revolution––a post-photographic one, after which photography is distinguished by the origin as the human and the unhuman photography, dealing with images that were rarely seen as human-made, as scientific ones––is important. Scientific photography, although having a wide implementation and extremely important consequences, has been omitted from a majority of history of photography books. So, the book by Marvin Heiferman Seeing Science comes as very important source.

The book is an exhibition-like project; chosen photographs / projects are not sorted on a historical timeline (although one is supplied by the end of the book) nor by disciplines, but in three content-related chapters, analyzing the relationship of the cross-section of photography and science to knowledge, culture, and imagination.

Materials are of a different origin. There are historic scientific images: Wilhem Conrad Roentgen's X-ray picture of his wife’s hand, Anna Atkins’ cyanotypes, Raymond Gosling and Rosalind Franklin’s image of DNA cell diffraction, Giulliame Duchenne de Boulogne’s images of the electrocution of face muscles, James Nasmyth’s record of the moon surface, Wilson A. Bentley’s images of snow, Joseph Maria Eder and Eduard Valenta’s X-rays, but also ones not credited to individual authors, such as NASA’s image of the Pillars of Creation. The other sort of images are ones not really recorded by scientists, but having a scientific implementation: William Anders’ Earthrise, or Alphonse Bertillion’s mug shots. Then, there are photographs made by professional photographers: Dickenson V. Alley’s portrait of Tesla, Edward Muybridge, Todd Spoth, Saul Loeb, as well as those by amateur and unknown photographers and including images made by companies or by design teams. In addition to images that function as objective proofs or records of proofs, there are images that distort our notions of it, such as photographs used in pseudo-sciences: Victorian ghost images and the Loch Ness 'monster' taken in 1934, and also newer simulations such as Eric William Carroll’s psychokinesis tests, or ones by artistic projects dealing with science (Robert Rauschenberg, Joan Fontcuberta, Todd Forsgren, Tanya Marcuse, Eduardo Kac, Trevor Paglen, Suzanne Anker, Nancy Burson, Gary Schneider).

Besides original photographic experiments and documentations, this book also features the documentation of science (portraits of scientists, laboratories, displays in science, organizations of materials, scientific demonstrations, marches for science). The last few articles in the book expand onto themes in movies and virtual reality.

The book also reprises some older writings on the theme, including Berenice Abbott’s Photography and Science (1939) and Peter H. Emerson’s Naturalistic photography (1890). Also, some newer, shorter writings are added, such as Seth Berry Watter’s piece on Paul Emmanuel Byers analysis of conferences, Marcel Chotkowski LaFoilette’s The Story of Photo 51, Jennifer Tucker’s Photography and Environmental Practice, Marc Alice Durard’s Wonder of Evidence, Felice C Frenkel’s Representing Science at Work, Ben Burbridge’s Science Photography and the Art Museum. In addition, there are sections that are transcriptions of joined analysis of selected pieces. The relationship among texts and images is not strict (so the text on naturalistic photography is not accompanied the images made by Henry Peach Emerson).

Many themes covered are of the great importance for the post digital photography theme-wise, as photographs of species (in ornithology, submarine) environmental photography (toxicity, pollution), but also images of various types of light (X-rays, laser light).

This book is a luxury-printed jewel, and some images, as Pillars of Time, deserve it. Still some others that would be great in full size are rather small. Encyclopedic size, hard cover, great prints, and clear two-page layout make this book an enjoyable one for a present for young people but also adults enjoying the theme.