4. Observation
Published: 05.12.2012
in the series Photography and Science
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The next two blogs will deal with the often conjoined activities of observation and experiment, as they pertain to photography and science. They are significant in thinking about photography because they are so very bound up in the arguments about photography’s supposedly prickly relationship with art.

Observation is of course much older than photography. When photography was invented it slotted into perceived ideas about what good observation entailed. The arguments and history for this have been recently reviewed in Daston and Lunbeck Histories of Observation. What is interesting in the announcements about photography’s potential in the sciences was the repeated rhetoric that one also finds in advocates of observation as a scientific method at the time. It was democratic, all encompassing and above all, enlarged the potential membership if the very exclusive fraternity of capable observers by being so ‘easy’ to work. (Of course, early photography was the least easy thing to work, but the rhetoric at least promised ‘ease of use’). Daston and Galison have written comprehensively about the close connection that was made to the mechanics of photography. The fact that it was mechanical ensured (as far as the rhetoric was concerned) distanced, objective looking, but it also ensured a kind of looking-without-pause that resulted in comprehensive looking in a way that fatigued and fallible humans could not achieve, however much they aspired to it. Photographic looking was democratic in its registration of detail, and unflagging in its activity. It also held out the potential for observing and recording at the same time. Photographic records were then both the product of observation and the target of further, or continued observation. They represented two layers of observation, one made at the moment, and all subsequent observations.

It is important that we think about the broader ramifications of treating photography like the perfect observing tool. In order to do this, scientists had to couch photography in terms of a passive device (intervention on the part of the photographic machine would be just as bad as human intervention, skewing the objectivity of the observation). The problem with designating photography qualitatively as a passive device is that it is then very difficult to recategorize it in terms of a creative art, with all the intentionality that implies. The result was, in the nineteenth century arguments about art photography, decidedly mixed. Some artists, Emerson in particular, argued first for the capacity of photography to be a medium of intentional expression, then, partly informed by Hurter and Driffield’s findings in sensitometry, denying it on the basis that its mechanical limits limited his freedom of intentional expression.

But what is most disturbing is the leakage of this notion of passivity into photographic history. Very rarely do we consider the agency of the photographic mechanism itself. It is this that Charlotte Bigg so neatly addresses with her analysis of the ‘mise en observation’, the setting of the stage to make certain observations in Histories of Scientific Observation. Early scientific proponents of photography ignored the sheer amount of stage setting that goes into making photography work at all. Light and other radiation has to point in certain directions, scientists have to limit it, capture it, portray it, and in doing so they make a hundred different adjustments to their observation. Sometimes, if they are using commercially made film or software, they allow industry to dictate the parameters within which they can observe. As these parameters are often more stable than any hand-made photography could be, they are part of the necessary stage setting.

So the designation of photography as an observing tool is fraught with complications, and scientists and photographers also soon realized it, if they had indeed ever completely bought into the rhetoric in the first place, something Jennifer Tucker has adequately thrown into doubt. But the lingering and sometimes even pervasive notion of the passivity of photography (its mechanical nature) continued to be a problem in the arts, and is not so difficult to find this rhetoric alive and kicking today.

1 comment(s)
Charlotte Cotton
Posted 08.12.2012 at 15:33

Dear Kelley,

I’m learning a great deal from the way in which you combine a range of concepts of photography (that are recognisable to those of us who have not come to photography through scientific investigation) into an importantly paradoxical notion of photographic science. It is very heartening to hear that it may perhaps be an exciting challenge, if not an enduring quality, for all facets of photography to reconcile its ostensible passive observational mechanics with its openness to staging and preconception by its users. Personally, I quite like it that ‘stability’ is an elusive concept within photography. There is an inherent instability of terminology that your most recent blog post brings to the fore. I’ve been re-reading your text and thinking about how you are describing the legacy of the contradictory qualities assigned to early scientific photography, and what this then means for and in relation to independent artistic photography (and I love your phrase ‘decidedly mixed’ to describe the arguments about nineteenth century art photography). To perhaps oversimplify, I mentally positioned the challenge of defining early scientific photography as one troubled with the obvious fact that the medium could be manipulated, staged and preconceived by its makers. I then positioned art photography at the other end of the scale in the nineteenth century because it wasn’t able to be conventionally artistic enough because of the perceived ‘passive’ objectivity of its mechanics, and its inherent lack of authorial intent or control.
The ‘leakage’, as you call it, of essential ideas of photography rightly suggests something that is fluid. For me, the notion of art, as-well-as science and photography has also been on quite a journey from the early nineteenth century until now. I have to admit rather sadly that the idea that photography constitutes art when it’s authorial signature is undeniable and the medium has some sort of passing resemblance to old genre paintings is still the dominant one and the rhetoric that I think you might be referring to as ‘alive and kicking’ today. That utterly conventional idea of art photography (and then by proxy the idea of photography-at-large, including scientific and experimental photography) is still necessarily hampered by the ‘passive’ or automatic characteristics photography.

Your blog post reminded me of an axis shifting (for me) conversation I had recently with Taro Amano, chief curator of the Yokohama Museum of Art. He has curated just a few photography exhibitions but each one has been a unique and inspiring perspective on photography. I expressed my view that photography in Japan has been so liberated because of the context in which this new technology became used in the mid 1850's. While the nature of early photography in the West is contextualised within a large and dynamic cultural debate about art and industry, high and low cultural forms, in Japan the situation was so different – there were traditional crafts and then there was photography, this quite independent form. Amano San did not agree with my genesis theory and, as a Modernist and a curator of art, aligned the dominant nature of photography in Japan with what happened in the early twentieth century, with the impact of European avant garde thinking and practices in Japan. To cut a long story short, he proposed that the identity of contemporary Japanese photography was determined as a Duchampian Readymade tool.

I know this sounds like I am going rather off topic here but of course, as you know, there is another moment in the early twentieth century when scientific photography, including the development into standard ‘industry’ techniques of visualisation (such as x-ray) creatively collided meaningfully again with art photography as part of avant garde culture. I raise this because I think that the more interesting discourses about scientific experimentation and ways of seeing and its relationship with contemporary art practice today are not concerned with the ending or squaring of a specific story that began in the early nineteenth century and the extent of cultural and intellectual validation of photography per se. Rather, just as contemporary art since the 1960's hasn’t only held to the idea of a work of art being the formal resolution of a controlled and signature-styled authorial practice, contemporary art photographers of the 2010's can dip in and out of each and every iteration of this leaky bag of tools and tricks. It’s why I get so aggravated by exhibitions or residencies of artists in sciency institutions, as if it’s even interesting to instrumentalise the cultural bringing together of the clichéd and inaccurate assumption that there is a difference between art and science and that we are either right and left brain creatives. It just simply does not represent the field of art and photography and its role within human creativity and experimentation, nor its rich and fluid history

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