For the last year the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History has been preparing to celebrate its 100 year anniversary. As part of the celebration, curators and archivists have been combing the files in preparation for an exhibition of historic photographs that will describe the museum’s history.
It also reminds us of the interesting history of photography and science. Born from a marriage of chemistry and optics and nurtured by artists and entrepreneurs, photography entered the world as unique, modern hybrid—part science, part art, part industry, part craft—yet its purely empirical usefulness for observing and reporting on the natural and man-made world was recognized from the beginning. As part of a broad mid-19th century roster of scientifically useful discoveries and inventions, photography brought records of biological specimens, geological structures, and all manner of previously unseen physical evidence into the laboratories of scientists around the world. As illustrations, photographs wielded the authority of realism: they were, after all, literally taken from life and the promised to bring knowledge through visual representations. However, not all of the scientific uses of photography have produced purely empirical results. This was especially true in the study of our own species. Comparative anatomy and anthropology, two scientific fields born in the same century as photography, adopted the camera as a means of cataloguing and classifying the world’s peoples. While such activity seemed innocent enough when directed towards, say, animals at the National Zoo, its application to humans was often problematic. Read, for example, Carol Squiers' recent essay for click! about the use of photographs and eugenics. Today, we recognize many of these photographs less as science and more as evidence of how cultures can devise “proof positive” to fit their own preconceptions.
Nevertheless, even culturally biased images can convey valuable information. The thousands of photographs taken of American Indians that are now housed in the Smithsonian’s National Anthropological Archives, many of them catalogued by tribe and geographic location, may have been intended as a tribute to what was in the 19th century romantically, if erroneously, called “the vanishing race,” but they nonetheless supply evidence of tribal dress and activity that remains important to both modern anthropologists and the subjects’ ancestors. The same could be said of “historical” pictures, like the ones made by Civil War photographers who staged images to suit the demands of newspapers or government officials: they contain useful information, but that evidence must be viewed in the context of the intentions and preconceived notions of the photography and, often, the employer or the institution for which the photographs were made. What contemporary scientists have learned about their own laboratory work also holds true for photographs: the presence of an observer cannot help but change what is observed. As a result, photographs are no longer necessarily believed to be “proofs” but rather are considered with a critical eye in the interest of separating facts from fictions.
Merry Foresta is the Former Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.