In the most recent issue of Ezra (Winter 2010, pg. 3), Cornell University’s quarterly magazine, there is a small feature about photographs by graduate student Heather Flores of fruit fly ovaries. These images won the NYSTEM Stem Cell Awareness Day Image Contest. Besides the fact that there is a contest devoted to images that demonstrate the visual beauty of stem cell science, the competition also suggests that there are currently lots of scientists who are willing to show off that they make images that are both informative and aesthetically pleasing. The idea that photography promises to collect facts isn’t new, nor is the idea that the resulting images might constitute its own form of art. And the idea of making a beautiful picture as well as an informative one has also been part of the discussion since the beginning. Early writers about photography did not doubt that this new mechanism for collecting evidence would change science but they puzzled more philosophically about the nature of the art photography might produce. Science is fact. Beauty, however, comes with its own and different set of issues, that rely on vision rather than mere sight. As Bob Pollack considers it in relation to photographic images, sometimes that vision takes a fraction of a second to register, sometimes it is the accumulation of images over time that yields the photographic nature of truth, beauty and purpose. Consider Eadweard Muybridge, whose work is represented in several Smithsonian collections. His career took place in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, on the cusp of what we now call modern vision. In his early career he produced large-format, wet-plate landscape pictures that produced images that still today are dazzling in their ability to deliver the specificity of place. He also made side-by-side images of landscape views that could be put in a stereo viewer and enjoyed in three dimensions. He produced an unprecedented panorama of San Francisco, assembled from thirteen views taken from Nob Hill. But he is best known for devising a way to depict instantaneous, sequential views of animals and humans in motion. As the Smithsonian Museum of American History’s collection of his working plates for the publication of his Animal Locomotion studies suggest, the effort to make the single frames of data conform to a single page sequence was considerable. Aside from the impressive technical innovations involved in going from assembling individual negatives into a long but coherent single panoramic cityscape to split second exposures into cinematic narratives, the conceptual leap is vast. With it we have an entirely new concept with which to grapple—the enormous effect of the invisible. And with photography’s capability to dissect and then dissolve time we move conceptually from three dimensions into a fast forward modern age, and the implications of that always elusive forth dimension. Enter Marcel Duchamp. And enter scientists like Heather Flores whose achievement of beautiful images of the previously invisible, as before Muybridge time was invisible, gives us once again something about which to be awestruck.
Merry Foresta is the Former Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.