Art meets science – experiments in photography


The camera has always been a useful laboratory tool. Here we preview an exhibition that charts the partnership from the beginning and look at how high speed photography can still reveal remarkable insights today.


Blow Up, Untitled 1, 2007, Ori Gersht [A still-life of flowers, frozen with liquid nitrogen then blown apart with a small explosive charge, captured by high speed photography]. © Ori Gersht, Private Collection, courtesy of Mummery+Schnelle.

Science and art have always had a close relationship – both seek to observe and explain the world.

Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings, for instance, did much to unravel the anatomy of the human body, while his imagination and draughtsmanship took us to new technological realms.

But in the 20th and 21st centuries, the nexus between art and science has been strained, and sometimes lost. C.P. Snow’s 1959 lecture, The Two Cultures, bemoaned the way Western intellectual life had been split into the two camps – the sciences and the humanities. This, he said, was holding us back from solving some of the world’s most intractable problems.

But it was not always this way, as this selection of images celebrating how art has aided science and vice versa - taken from an exhibition at London's Science Museum - shows.

Untitled [smoke aligning with the direction of an electric current] Étienne Jules Marey, 1901, courtesy of Cinémathèque Française, Paris

Revelations: Experiments in Photography investigates the influence of early scientific photography on modern and contemporary art and includes some of the rarest images from the pioneers of photography.

“From the 1840s, scientists were using photography as a device to record and measure phenomena which lay beyond human vision,” the catalogue tells us.

“The aesthetic beauty of this early photography and the revolutionary techniques developed for scientific study shaped the history of photography and heavily influenced modern and contemporary art photographers.”

The exhibition gathers some of the earliest photographic images by figures such as William Henry Fox Talbot and Eadweard Muybridge alongside works by modern and contemporary artists including Harold Edgerton and Hiroshi Sugimoto. It includes the earliest recorded images of the Moon and 19th century photographs capturing electrical discharges.

Chronophotograph of a Man Clearing a Hurdle, c.1892, Étienne Jules Marey © National Media Museum, Bradford SSPL
Bullet Through Lemon, c. 1955 - Color © Harold Edgerton, MIT, 2015, courtesy of Palm Press, Inc.
Lightning Fields 216, 2009, Hiroshi Sugimoto © Hiroshi Sugimoto, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco
The Flight of a Baton, 60 Flashes per Second, 1953 - Black & White ©Harold Edgerton, MIT, 2015, courtesy of Palm Press, Inc.

The exhibition runs in London until November when it moves to the National Media Museum in Bradford, UK, from 19 November 2015 – 7 February 2016.

The art of photography to help scientists understand the world around them is far from dead, as we showed in our recent gallery Making Waves.

In that, high-speed photography specialist Phred Petersen at RMIT University shows the beautiful patterns waves make as they pass through gases. Petersen’s work helps aerospace engineers understand the airflow around their designs.

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Bill Condie is publisher of Cosmos.
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