2. Photography and the Invisible
Published: 13.11.2012
in the series Photography and Science
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For many years, an oft-repeated theme in relation to science photographs has been the revelatory concept of making invisible things visible. Reiterated in exhibition and book titles, the concept has become commonplace without ever submitting to significant scrutiny. It needs scrutiny, however, since scholarship by Edwards, Tucker, Kelsey, Daston, Galison and others have made it very clear that there is much more to photography’'s role in science than as a simple, passive conduit, translating the invisible ‘out there’ to the visible ‘here and now’. The entire concept is too large to address entirely in a short blog, as it would have to question the notion of what is ‘visible’ and go back through the philosophy of science and perception from Hacking to Berkeley. But there is one part that we could usefully address here, and that is the making of objects by photography.

This is best discussed with an example in mind. Take a particular image from Henri Becquerel'’s 1903 publication Recherches sur une propriété nouvelle de la matiére. In this photolithograph, Becquerel has ‘documented’ what are now known as the alpha, beta and gamma rays emitted from a radioactive source. There are two reasons why we should be interested in the photograph: first, that these photographs at one time helped scientists form an idea of the research object that was radioactivity, and secondly, because the photos were quickly superseded by other research methods.

Antoine-Henri Becquerel, photolithograph, Figure 60, Recherches sur une propriété nouvelle de la matiére, 1903.

When we say that photography ‘makes the invisible visible’, we generally refer to much more stable visual objects - electric sparks as used by Sugimoto or Trouvelot perhaps, or microscopical images of the eye of a fly. Electric sparks of course can be measured in any number of ways, but the images of ‘electricity’ hold a certain fascination. –They make the concept of electricity visually concrete in a way that numbers do not. To think of these photographed objects as things that are transient, like Becquerel’'s radioactivity photographs, allows us to conceive of how far photography influences our notion of the idea of an object.

One way of looking at the problem would make it easier. In an article published in May 2000, André Gunthert discusses photography as a particular sort of human knowledge; – he bases his description of scientific photography not on some inherent technical quality in photography, but on the reception of the photographs. (A. Gunthert, “"La rétine du savant: La fonction heuristique de la photographie”", Études Photographiques 7, May 2000). Like Appadurai’'s commodities, bodies of knowledge appear and disappear. They are constituted by the society of scientists that agree that the object is indeed an object in the way photography represents it. When research or concepts move on, as they soon did in the first decade of the twentieth century, the photograph might no longer represent the object, and it becomes obsolete. Photography then, could be said to generate objects. Not objects in the conventional sense that they exist in the real world, but ‘objects’ that normally have no corporeal presence.  These might be physical phenomena, or, taking the example of Becquerel, however, they might also be scientific concepts.

What then, does photography ‘reveal’ when it ‘makes invisible things visible’? I would argue that it doesn'’t ‘reveal’ anything; it is not a passive conductor of invisible reality to the eyes of scientists. Instead, scientific photographs construct objects in complicated ways that reflect the nature of the questions asked by the scientist/photographer, the technology of the time, and the particulars of the experiment.

10 comment(s)
Charlotte Cotton
Posted 15.11.2012 at 13:56

Dear Kelley, I think that it is really important that you raise the notion of photography in experimental science as a construct, and one that produces ‘objects’. And what I am taking from this proposal is that the ‘object’ is not necessarily the formal evidential conclusion (akin to the resolved and final object of art) but the visualization of ongoing scientific investigations. Your highlighting of the Becquerel photograph of rays succinctly brings the issues at play to the fore – both the visual curiousness of the translation of scientific phenomena into 2-dimensional forms (which most of us are reading formally and philosophically rather than scientifically, I suppose) and the palpable sense of a experimental visualization of both what and how a scientist is seeing. These are exciting concepts for photography-at-large and especially so given the current scope of conversations and analysis we can have with new imaging processes and technologies, many of which have been developed in science laboratories. It’s not just the enduring fascination human beings have with the idea of making ‘invisible things visible’ but the equally powerful urge to model innovation. Your blog post reminded me of a perspective-shifting conversation I had about two years ago with Professor Matthew C Hunter who really helped me to think about early scientific photography from the perspective of the history of modeling (and he was referencing the mid. 17th century and specifically Hooke’s presentation of his model for a microscope to the Royal Society in London). I also remember that he told me that by the mid 1670s, Hooke was the Curator of Experiments at the Royal Society and that struck me as a job title that really needs resurrecting! In my somewhat unreconstructed Modernist reading of 19th century scientific photographyI think I was overly indebted to early 20th century avant garde practices and the idea that they were driven by dynamic innovation and experimentation. And of course there are connections between Victorian science and industry that issued photographic translations and the more progressive social ambitions of the Modernist project. Equally, I want to read your concluding remarks in this week’s blog post as an encouragement to think about scientific photography as a liberating and core notion of the medium as one that does not show but sees and this is a continually important notion for us to conjure with.

Kelley Wilder
Posted 19.11.2012 at 13:13

Dear Charlotte,

You're absolutely right to bring up this word 'translation' as it is an important part of what photography does. Whether it was nineteenth century translation of three-dimensional objects into two-dimensional ones (or, in cases where stereo was used, into a different sort of three dimensions) or conjuring up directionality as a physical imprint on photographic paper, or the twentieth century/twenty-first century digital translation into either two or one dimensional (graphic) images, photography achieves a visualization that is a complicated construction. Galison has long talked about the strategies and investment in certain ways of generating data - in "Image and Logic" most extensively - and in the way that scientists become wedded to a particular way of creating knowledge. In this way photography is as much part of the history of ideas as it is any other history and that, as you say, understanding modeling in the 17th or 18th century might help us to interrogate photographic practice in the 20th or 21st.

As far as the modernist hold over the interpretation of science images goes, it is difficult for us to step outside it and to see where modernism has skewed what we are seeing. In some ways perhaps we are not spending enough time looking at the reasons behind, say the MIT show 'The New Landscape in Art and Science' of 1956 and others like it. We tend to think in terms of 'influence' rather than patterns of thought, or experiment, or of generating knowledge of the world. It is difficult, though, because Becquerel also carefully constructed his images to be central, balanced and so on, which does appeal greatly to our sense of the 'modern'. Modernism and science photography are deeply entangled and rather than looking away from the relationship, perhaps we should look a bit more closely to see what science and the avant garde modernists are both responding to at the same time that made them so wonderfully compatible.

Kent Krugh
Posted 19.11.2012 at 22:48

Hello Kelly,

It is interesting that you use the word "photography" to describe scientific image making. Is this your intention: to label all image processes as photography? Is a simple chest x-ray up for consideration in your analysis? I ask these questions as a practitioner of Radiation Oncology, where rapid, high resolution imaging has revolutionized our field.

If medical imaging can be considered part of this discussion, then your statement "I would argue that it doesn’t ‘reveal’ anything;" is, on the face of it, hard to agree with. As a specific example: when planning the radiation therapy for small metastases in the brain, MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and PET (positron emission tomography) scans are necessary to determine the number, location, and size of the lesions. Much has to be revealed.

However your question "What then, does photography reveal when it makes invisible things visible?" is appropriately disavowed. The metastatic lesions in the brain are very real and not invisible, yet MRI is required to appreciate them.
Image making artists appropriate the technique and process, that is for sure. And perhaps it is the artist that may succeed in making the invisible become visible.

Kelley Wilder
Posted 21.11.2012 at 18:50

Dear Kent,

The question of what an MRI should be 'called' is an interesting one. Of course, as you say, not all imaging techniques are photography, and I'd be tempted to call MRI and PET imaging devices that are specifically not photography, but you might disagree. Drawing is also clearly not photography, nor is sonar, but they both are image making devices of one sort or another. What Becquerel was up to clearly was photography - he and his father were well known for their photographic methods. I would be interested to know from you, in what way the lesions you speak of can only be 'appreciated' through MRI (or PET) scans, as this sounds very much like what I would like to say about photography being not a straight, unmediated 'go-between'. Would they be seen in an autopsy? That is, are they 'there' in a way that Becquerel's rays are not?

Ulla Fischer-Westhauser
Posted 20.11.2012 at 13:11

Ulla Fischer-Westhauser
European Society for the History of Photography (ESHPh)

Your point of view about photography's power to make invisible things visible in science is quite worth considering. Photography always has had a pivotal significance as one of the predominant forms of visualizing experimental techniques. Maybe the problem lies in the term itself. The expression "photograph" cannot always be used in this connection, even when the result of the procedure is a "photograph". It can be helpful to speak of "using photographic methods" instead of just "photography". Let me illustrate this with an example:
Taking Bequerel, you mentioned previously, in consideration, we know that he worked on the issue of photographic emulsions as part of his research work. There is another researcher in this field, going far beyond Bequerel: The Austrian physicist Marietta Blau (1894 – 1970) worked in the first half of the twentieth century when photographic methods were used intensively to record the traces of alpha particles and artificially accelerated protons using photographic emulsions. Blau achieved the greatest level of success in solving this problem of inadequate emulsions. Her intensive research work lead to the discovery of “disintegration stars” in 1937. These are star-shaped traces from the products of nuclear reactions between cosmic radiation and nuclei within the photographic emulsion. The chemical reactions in the photographic method for detecting nuclear particles are caused by the ionizing effect of the silver bromide in the emulsion and not by light!
Particle traces had already been photographed in cloud chambers beforehand - the traces were captured using “real” photography. To do this, light exposure has to be synchronized with the movement of the particles. Unlike Marietta Blau’s method: it had the advantage that the photo plate was basically ready to “take a picture” for an unlimited time and could be used for long periods. This makes all the difference in terms. In this case we may speak of “pictures produced with photographic methods” and not of a photograph.

Kelley Wilder
Posted 26.11.2012 at 18:08

Dear Ulla,

This is indeed a set of very important questions, so I address them in the next thread as I felt that they needed some clarification. To sum up, I do think that instrumentalizing the definition of 'photography' can lead to thorny problems. We have historically 'defined' photography in an essentialist way - that is, we have followed the lead of the October movement in taking the essence of what photography IS, to the detriment (and here I borrow from Elizabeth Edwards) of understanding what photography is FOR. For a long time the concept of the fixed image was the touchstone of the definition of photography. It seems to me that we are now not so sure fixation is the only thing we should be worried about. To me, and you might very well disagree, the use of light to make the image is the same sort of argument. It aligns the definition of photography away from all those 'photographs' made by printing presses, and toward the usual hierarchy of the unique and precious image that upholds the museum and art market. Not that this aspect of photography should be dismissed, but my argument is that there is much more to photography than that. We have examples in the nineteenth century of photography made by various means - I think my favorite article on these is Bill Jay's classic 'By the Light of a Putrid Haddock', although there are more serious articles in the Chemistry and Physics journals of the day that prove his point rather well. Perhaps I'm getting off on a tangent here, but it is only to say that indeed I do think that 'using photographic methods' leads to 'photography', which is why I use both terms and do not wish to separate them, even in extreme cases where the notion of 'photography' seems all bent out of shape. This is partly because there are so many examples of cases in which 'using photographic methods' has led to more mainstream photography, even though there are also cases where it hasn't.

David Campany
Posted 20.11.2012 at 21:15

Dear Kelley,

This is fascinating. Thanks. Given what you are saying about modernism and its ways of understanding the photograph as form being at odds with scientific applications, can you shed some light on the career of Bernice Abbott? She begins as an artist saturated in the modern avant-gardes of the 1920s, is then influenced by Eugene Atget's complex documents, and after the war seems to devote her time to explorations of scientific photography. What was the status of those later images withing science? They didn't seem to be cutting edge, more like formally refined versions of nineteenth century photographic demonstrations, made in the name of popularizing science. Had she really shaken off her artistic modernism for something else?

In ignorance,

David Campany

Kelley Wilder
Posted 22.11.2012 at 14:44

Dear David,

I think it might have more to do with the fact that Abbott was commissioned by the Physical Science Study Committee to make a series of science images, for a textbook on physics. The textbook uses her images on the front and back, and many of them, all uncredited, in the content. She was a commercial photographer in many ways - I've even got a guide to New York City with Abbott images as illustrations of tourist destination points! Often photographers' commercial work is 'forgotten' as a convenience when histories get written, and in Abbott's case this seems to happen in the extreme. As Jennifer Tucker recently reminded us in an article in the Photoresearcher, we can't forget the close links of science photography with advertising and industry in the middle of the 20th century. Photomicrographs were used in anything from soap adds to the latest film technology. Perhaps we should look here for a better understanding of Abbott's work over the years?

Anna Schmid
Posted 30.11.2012 at 20:15

Dear Kelley,
I am very impressed with your blog - Thank you so much! and just wanted to point out an artist/photographer, whom you might find interesting: Heide Hatry photographs "not objects in the conventional sense [in which] they exist in the real world, but ‘objects’ that normally have no corporeal presence" especially in her last body of work, she photographed waste products from slaughterhouses, but presented them as beautiful flowers:
All the best
Anna Schmid

Pavlina Chakarova
Posted 16.12.2012 at 15:18

Hi, my name's Pavlina and I'm a conceptual photographer, based in Sofia, Bulgaria. I’m using the expression of color to examines the problems of the identity and metaphysical nature, refracted through the prism of symbolism and “aura” of given color. I'm working with Kirlian photography and I think it can find a good place in this discussion: its used by scientists and actually makes the invisible energy around our bodies visible :)! I know it's kind of symbolic, but generally I think that all kinds of arts (not only photography) depict something invisible - they express our emotions and our inner worlds. I've written 2 articles about this topic, may be it will be interesting for all of you to read them:

The mystery of abstract art: the abstract artists and their interests in Theosophy


Concerning the Abstraction in Photography


Kind regards,

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