3. Photographic Practice and Photography
Veröffentlicht: 22.11.2012
in der Serie Photography and Science
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Since we are following a trajectory in this blog of asking what it might be like to explore photographic history from a look at particular photographic practices, I want to address one of the comments in the last blog here in a whole new thread. In the last blog, Ulla Fischer-Westhauser rightly brought up Marietta Blau and nuclear emulsions. Although that was written in a context of visible/invisible, the example of nuclear emulsions and Marietta Blau, Cecil Powell, Pierre Demers, Kodak and Ilford makes an excellent jumping off point for discussing exactly the differences Ulla is (rightly) concerned about between photographic practices and the more general sense of photography.

Peter Galison has written most extensively about the nuclear emulsions in ‘Image and Logic’ and since the students in Zurich are reading exactly this chapter for today’s seminar, it is useful to use his book as a reference point. Perhaps the most useful observation for writing a new sort of photographic history is Galison’s assertion of the hopelessness of telling an isolated history of the emulsion technique (cf. 146). It would involve dismissing war, gender politics in science, and the industrial secrecy of photographic giants Kodak and Ilford for a start. His statement might just as well describe the impulse behind the movements for studying visual culture and Bildwissenschaft; an expansion of art historical investigation to the surrounding world of images and image making and cultural and industrial history.

The nuclear emulsion story is interesting because it brings up not only the manipulation of photographic emulsions to create designed tools – Photographic Practice and Photography Galison calls the emulsions “chemical ‘devices’” (143) – for recording nuclear events, but also the industrial and often military context in which they take place. As numerous artists have shown, photographic surfaces can reproduce images made by any number of organic substances (Adam Fuss’ animal entrails being a spectacular example), and all sorts of energy like heat and electricity and radioactivity, that are not light. Not only scientists, but emulsion scientists understand this too. Blau herself noted the correlation between photographic change and scientific change in a publication of 1931 (Galison, 149). The fact that Blau involved Ilford, and the UK Nuclear Emulsion Panel later pitted Ilford and Kodak against one another in a race to the best nuclear emulsion, shouldn’t come as a surprise. Industrial chemists and physicists working in the research labs of these companies were interested in both outcomes – the scientifically possible and the practically marketable.

The people who create photography for everyday use are often the same people who work to stretch the photographic surface out of all recognition. Sometimes the stretching process gives rise to commercially marketable films, sometimes not. The Lumière brothers, for instance, worked closely with Parisian scientists. This fluidity between the experimental and the marketable is what leads me to call photographic methods in science (that’s what the scientists often called them) just plain old photography. That is, images made with photographic methods are, to me, photographs, even if they are only meant to be counted then discarded, or measured and discarded. To me, isolating photographic practices from photography seems equally hopeless in the construction of a history, which is why I think it is useful to look at science in order to understand photography, and to look at photography in order to understand science.

1 Kommentar(e)
Charlotte Cotton
Abgesendet am 26.11.2012 um 19:58

Dear Kelley,

As with your previous posts, your encouragement of us to think of ‘photographic methods in science’ as central to a useful and contemporary idea of photography is wonderful to encounter. More than this (and I hope I am reading your post correctly) the idea of scientific photography being part of photography in everyday life and usage is great to be intellectually grappling with. Your post made me think of a number of things, all of which are tellingly in relation to the elephant in the room (for me at least) of contemporary art photography. If photographic methods of science are quotidian, they are also methods that are developed by working groups; enhanced, modified, reworked and far from a static process or idea. When photography is contemporary art, it might cite the quotidian but is far from it. And photography-as-art is invariably perceived as the form – the end result, the execution – of an idea.

Your post made me think of how an art photographer who made the transition from analogue to digital photographic processes characterised their use of Photoshop for me as necessarily using maybe only 5% of the capabilities of the software, to definitely not use this commercially available software in the way that was prescribed by the user manual. It also made me think that artist-designers who work with code have a much closer affinity to what I think you are describing as the practice and understandings of photographers who are coming from the perspective of science. In particular, the independent practice of Casey Reas (who also developed Processing software with Ben Fry at MIT) seems to better embody the ‘fluidity between the experimental and the marketable’ than any art photographer I can think of. With that in mind, I would be really interested to know whether you think that the sensibilities and motivations that you see at play in the history of photography as a scientific method are ones that are also becoming apparent in contemporary, non-photographic datavisualisation in the field of science. I guess I would really like to know if, like contemporary art photography, which on so many levels no longer is directly plugged into the quotidian defaults of image making and circulation, the value and meaning of scientific photography is being shifted up by the arrival of new technologies and ways of seeing.

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