The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Years ago, doing research for Paradise Now, an exhibition exploring contemporary artists’ responses to genetic research, I came across the modest, but now-iconic photograph of DNA that was made by the British scientist and researcher, Rosalind Franklin in 1952. Her x-ray diffraction image which was shown to American scientist James Watson—whether with or without Franklin’s approval is still a source of controversy—is credited with jump-starting his subsequent work with British scientists James Crick and Maurice Wilkins in hypothesizing the double helical structure of DNA. Franklin died in 1958, and while Watson, Crick, and Wilkins went on to win the Nobel Prize for their research in 1962, controversy about who should actually be credited with discovering the structure of DNA continued to swirl, as did arguments about the gender-biased structure of the scientific community.
Shortly after Paradise Now opened in New York in 2000, I helped organize an event where artists in the show and science fellows at Rockefeller University got together over drinks to share their images and interests. What became clear in the course of the evening was the fact that, for both artists and scientists, photography plays an essential role in helping them to visualizing concepts that would otherwise remain too abstract or complex to comprehend.
Remembering that evening, and wanting to explore how photographic images work as metaphors as well as fact, I decided to invite a scientist to consider how photographs—so valued for their specificity—can help us ponder some of life’s mysteries. And so I contacted Robert Pollack, director of the Center for the Study of Science and Religion at the Earth Institute at Columbia University, and author of The Faith of Biology and the Biology of Faith, to consider how photography opens new paths for us to engage with life’s bigger issues.