Faith and the Scientific Image

Review / by Veronique Greenwood /

A new book on the history of scientific imagery explores the promises and pitfalls of the easily-manipulated medium.

When I snapped my first picture under the electron microscope, I was breathless at the detail of the image: I could see the long, lovely arch of the interior of a seminiferous tubule and a great mass of flagella whipping out into the lumen. I turned to the grad student who was teaching me the technique, agape at what I’d been able to capture, and he smiled. “I have my first micrograph framed and hanging on my wall,” he said. To this day I keep my micrographs on my desk at the Seed offices, where they stand ready to deliver inspiration.

Imaging is one of the foundations of modern science. It can also be one of its most exciting elements for young scientists—nowhere is the pursuit of truth and the revelation of the invisible as well embodied as in the scientific image. Whether it’s the fluorescence of a protein, the X-ray shadow of a crystal, or the tracks of a radioactive nucleus, seeing raw data can be as thrilling as making a discovery. In the midst of these riches, it’s easy to forget that science underwent a dramatic metamorphosis when photography became possible.

Andrew Davidhazy, Tape-dispenser as seen in colour when placed between polarizers, 2005

The Exposures Series’ Photography and Science (Reaktion Books, May 2009,
Buy) is a meaty, detailed treatise on the history of scientific photography, as well as the science of photography. The book, written by Kelley Wilder, a senior research fellow in the Department of Imaging and Communication Design at the UK’s De Montfort University, is split into four sections—observation, experimentation, building archives, and art and the scientific photograph. Each explores how the development of light-sensitive emulsions and their descendants, including micrographs and radiograms, reinvented the way science was done. When cameras and emulsions first became more widely available in the mid-1800s, photography seemed to promise true scientific objectivity for the first time, helping to catalyze the shift away from theory towards observation. But how truly reliable was it? “Within the little-told tale of sensitivity data and characteristic curves,” writes Wilder, “exists a struggle over faith in the photographic image as an experimental instrument and, eventually, as evidence.”  This is a tale about our reliance on imaging technology for the truth, and how much has stood between its reality and its promise.

Every section of Photography and Science is loaded with curious revelations on the tribulations of scientific photography. When Venus crossed in front of the sun in 1874, Wilder recounts, massive expeditions were dispatched around the world to observe and photograph the planet. Every effort was made to standardize the teams’ emulsions, but the results were still so varied in sensitivity that Venus sometimes appeared to be square with round corners, and its edges in most cases were too soft for good measurements of diameter. As a replacement for a naturalist’s guidebooks or for anatomical drawings, photography also yielded mixed results, but for different reasons: In its ability to record everything, photography has no way of emphasizing what information is important or characteristic in a specimen or malady. A photograph of a person with elephantiasis, for example, cannot capture the “undifferentiated tissue abnormalities that occurred between one specimen and another,” Wilder writes. Thus for doctors and naturalists, a photograph has often proven much less useful than a drawing.

Photography’s impact on science has been more nuanced than early enthusiasts might have expected, and the book teases out other ways that objective images have actually obscured data. One of Wilder’s most interesting points concerns the archives of scientific photographs—of stars, of landscapes, of “all aspects of human life”—that sprung up in the late 1800s. But because having a complete collection was more important than how the contents were organized or classified, these early archives were primarily holding tanks for pictures. “Creating an archive with rigorous taxonomic constraints rests on the assumption that we know what important questions to ask of that archive,” Wilder writes. “In contrast, the photographic archive of mass collections assumes that we don’t yet know what the questions are.” This idea applies to scientific archiving of all kinds even today. As we collect more data than can possibly be examined—whether it be genomic data or countless gigs of telescope observations—we are often searching for the question more than the answer and build up our archives in hopes of a wiser future.

In her last chapter on the sometimes-fractious relationship between art and science, Wilder notes that, since photographs themselves are not as virtuously mechanical as we think, making a useful photograph takes artistry as well as science. Our assumption is that a scientific photograph has not been manipulated at all, when in fact control of exposures and false color are intrinsic parts of the process. In many scientific photographs, for example, the information captured is not visible to the human eye—radio waves from the galaxy’s center, for instance, or secondary electrons from a scanning electron microscope. Scientists usually add color independent of the photographic process in order to help in their analysis and presentation of the data: Faraway nebulae are often shown in false-color, even though much of their radiation is not in the range of visible light. Likewise, cells in micrographs are often colored even though they are not large enough to scatter visible light. These manipulations can foster pervasive misunderstandings among the public about how the world really works and what science is able to illuminate. But, as Wilder notes, one of the great successes of scientific photography has been its evangelism and education on the part of science. False-color nebulae, for example, are often sold as beautiful, large-format posters.

Wilder’s book is not without its flaws. The language tends to the academic, which can give it an admirable clarity or a density that’s difficult to penetrate. The arguments can slip into the abstract vocabulary of art criticism, which, for a reader whose grounding is in science, can be a barrier. Still, the ideas here are many-layered and the insights are profound: A photograph is both an unflinching record of reality and the result of a delicate and malleable process, a process designed to be manipulated. Imaging technology has no parallel as a diagnostic, and no parallel in its ability to communicate understanding. But the border between photography as a prophet and as a tool is a fraught zone, a fact that bears remembering.

* Front page image courtesy Reaktion Books. Photo by Etienne-Jules Marey, Chronophotograph on a glass plate: Marin, moving at speed, 18 July 1886

Originally published May 30, 2009

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