Go back to article: Made real: artifice and accuracy in nineteenth-century scientific illustration

Making scientific photography

As Daston and Galison readily acknowledge, ‘the photographic image did not fall whole into the status of objective sight; on the contrary, the photograph was also criticized, transformed, cut, pasted, touched up, and enhanced’. ‘Not all objective images were photographs,’ they continue, ‘nor were all photographs considered ipso facto objective’ (Daston and Galison, 2007, p 125). And yet even with this caveat, there are cases that fit uncomfortably, if they fit at all, within the framework of mechanical objectivity. It would seem, for example, that often the virtues of disinterest and restraint were inverted, and outlandish or long-winded interventions in the image-making process were celebrated as conferring rather than diminishing objectivity. At times it seems as though, far from generating controversy or calling into question the objectivity of the photograph, the more stages involved in making an image the better.

Take, for example, the lunar photographs of James Nasmyth, the Scottish engineer who had achieved fame and fortune with his invention of the steam-hammer, and who had retired to the aptly named ‘Hammerfield’ in order to pursue his astronomical obsessions. Nasmyth’s magnum opus is The Moon: Considered as a Planet, a World, and a Satellite (Nasmyth and Carpenter, 1874). This work, first published in 1874, was among the first to include photo-mechanically reproduced prints, and for this reason, as well as for its startling visual analogies, it has come to be seen as a landmark in the history of the scientific use of photography.

Figure 16

Two images on the same page in a book. One shows the back of an elderly hand the other a wrinkled apple to illustrate the origin of certain mountain ranges resulting from shrinking of the interior

Back of hand and wrinkled apple, to illustrate the origin of certain mountain ranges resulting from shrinking of the interior', by James Nasmyth.

At the time of its publication, too, reviewers were held spellbound. No less an authority than the astronomer Norman Lockyer, founding editor of the journal Nature, lavished praise on the book, singling out its illustrations for particular praise:

No more truthful or striking representations of natural objects than those here presented have ever been laid before his readers by any student of Science; and I may add that, rarely if ever, have equal pains been taken to insure such truthfulness (Lockyer, 1874, p 358).

Just what were these ‘pains’ that had occupied Nasmyth? True, he had been occupied with observations of the Moon for more than thirty years, having eventually constructed his own telescope, even casting the large speculum mirror himself. His skill in drafting was already established by the time he took up lunar observation – as his sketchbooks attest he was particularly skilled in swift depiction, with some of his illustrations noting the precise time it took to finish them. Nor was training oneself to observe the Moon, which must be continuously tracked across the sky, an easy task: Nasmyth is known to have learnt the details of the visible surface from the standard textbook Der Mond.[3] Yet it was not these pragmatic aspects of Nasmyth’s work that so impressed Lockyer – rather it was precisely the painstakingly involved process of the image-making itself that impressed him. For although Nasmyth had used both the latest photographic equipment and the latest photo-mechanical printing techniques, his images were anything but indexical records of the Moon’s surface. Using the excellent holdings of Nasmyth material at the Science Museum we can reconstruct his working procedure as follows:

First, Nasmyth would prepare chalk, pastel and crayon drawings of the observed crater, here ‘Copernicus’, working and reworking these over prolonged periods until they matched exactly what he saw.

Figure 17

A black and white drawing of a crater in chalk pastel and crayon entitled Copernicus

Copernicus' crater study, chalk, pastel and crayon, by James Nasmyth.

The next step was to take measurements of the shadows in order to estimate the heights of surface features. These were then modelled in plaster.

Figure 18

A top down view of a plaster model of a crater entitled Copernicus

Copernicus' crater study model in plaster, by James Nasmyth.

And finally the model of the original observational drawing was photographed in strong sunshine, the set-up so arranged that the angle of the Sun matched the drawing (though note that the drawing was of compound observations, so is not even an attempt to record a single moment).

Figure 19

Top down photograph in a book of a plaster model of a crater entitled Copernicus

Copernicus' crater study, photograph, by James Nasmyth.

Far from being deceived by the photographs, Lockyer knew exactly what had gone into their production, describing in outline the process and commenting that the images are ‘perfect’.

What Lockyer may not have been aware of, however, was Nasmyth’s diligence over the type of reproduction used for each image. The famous hand and apple photograph reproduced above, for example, uses the lower-contrast heliotype process, while the lunar photographs themselves are typically ‘Woodburytypes’, with a higher contrast matching the increased contrast found on the atmosphere-less Moon.

Nor was it only Lockyer who was impressed. Edinburgh Review carried an anonymous treatment that identified the talents of Nasmyth’s as those of ‘mechanical and engineering, rather than of mathematical or astronomical, science’, and emphasised that it was this combination that made his book ‘the most complete and intelligible description of the physical condition of the moon that has yet been published’ (Anon, 1875). Like Lockyer, this reviewer also favoured the ‘long, patient, painstaking labour, and the consummate skill of the artist’ exhibited by Nasmyth.

The success of Nasmyth’s images is all the more remarkable if we consider the various rivalries in astronomy in the period. Lockyer, for example, was engaged in a long-running battle with Richard Proctor over the role of imaginative reconstruction and popularisation in astronomy, and yet found nothing to criticise in the spectacularly imaginative reconstructions in Nasmyth’s The Moon.

Figure 20

Photograph in a book of a plaster model of imaginary lunar mountains

Group of lunar mountains, ideal lunar landscape' - part of Nasmyth's 'The Moon'.

Here the lack of atmosphere in the subject is particularly well matched to what we might view as the limitations of the medium – a point well taken in another account of lunar imagery in Nature:

From the merely artistic point of view the artist fears his task may be a thankless one, for since the moon has no atmosphere, there is neither aërial perspective nor diffusion of light, but it is precisely this point which should make our artist all the more interested in this unique production. […] In a word, there is wanting in the lunar landscape that which lends to our earth perspective, richness of tone, modulation, softness, and temper. (Anon, 1878, p 469)

Proctor, meanwhile, may have sympathised over the possibility of imagining and depicting scenes on the lunar surface, but was in open competition with Nasmyth over the explanation of lunar craters: at the same time as Nasmyth was using The Moon to advocate volcanic origin, Proctor published a less spectacular but still finely illustrated book arguing that the craters were formed by meteoric impacts (Proctor, 1886). But in spite of this Proctor – just as his bitter enemy Lockyer had – singled out Nasmyth’s images for praise, even going so far as to reproduce (now in a wood engraving by Henry Adlard) one of the crater images in his own book on the Moon (Proctor, 1886, pp 249 ff).

Figure 21

Engraving of Nasmyth's crate image as it appears in Proctor's book on the moon

Reproduction of Nasmyth's crater image in Proctor's book on the moon.

In her excellent essay on Nasmyth’s lunar imagery, Frances Robertson points out that Nasmyth’s background in engineering, and in particular his monumental invention the steam hammer, are not unrelated to his conception of the Moon as a plutonic environment, literally formed by the action of volcanos, metaphorically by the god Vulcan, called by Nasmyth ‘the head of our craft’ (Robertson, 2006, p 616). Hence the act of modelling might be more than a mere expedient to accuracy, instead becoming a means of controlling the unfathomable Moon – just as the picturesque is a means of controlling ever-changing nature (Liu, 1989, pp 64 ff). Here we can draw a more general point: thinking back to the case of Howard’s clouds it is clear that the demonstrable contrivance of image-making was far from a barrier to perceived objectivity – in Howard’s case, the progress of the classification was matched by the steady development of picturesque features in the cloud studies; in Nasmyth’s case the work that went into the production of the photographic record was itself considered virtuous, even allowing astronomers critical of the ‘imaginative’ mode to praise Nasmyth’s very obviously imaginative lunar landscapes.

Far from being a special case, Nasmyth’s multi-stage image-making process was, as Alex Soojung-Kim Pang (2007) has shown, central to the visual work of late-nineteenth century astronomy. Images of Mars, for example, were made on similar principles, with charts forming the basis for globes which were then photographed, and praised for their verisimilitude (Nall, 2013, p 56). Examples such as this can be multiplied, and though astronomy and meteorology may be particularly well-suited to the manufacture of such images, other disciplines will have their own peculiar and virtuously painstaking depictions. In zoology, for example, the tradition of manual illustration overlapped conspicuously with new micro-photographic techniques, most bizarrely with the sketches of ‘polycistins’ (single-celled organisms) by Priscilla Susan Bury, which were photographed and presented as straightforward microphotographs of the organisms themselves (e.g. Bury, 1862).

Figure 22

Pen and ink illustrations of marine based single celled organisms

Illustrations of ‘polycistins’ (single-celled organisms) by Priscilla Susan Bury.

As with Nasmyth’s Moon, praise for Bury’s work was not diminished by recognition of the conspicuous contrivance of the resulting images. Geography too, was a science of high artifice: in 1865 Francis Galton advocated the technique of making stereographic maps from models of mountains (Galton, 1865), and these in turn were probably inspired by the frontispiece to Charles Piazzi Smyth’s report on his astronomical work on the island of Tenerife. This showed a stereograph of a model of the island’s peak made by Nasmyth himself (Piazzi Smyth, 1858). Thus we come full circle, from cartography – which gives the appearance of observed reality but is based on land-based survey work – to geographical photography based on models of that very same geography.

Where photography couldn’t contribute to scientific work – most obviously in the depiction of colour – the complexities were even greater. Again the Science Museum’s collections offer an intriguing glimpse of a nineteenth-century solution, namely the sunset sketches by William Ascroft, which were completed in a frenzy of activity following the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883. That event had led to the ‘remarkable sunsets’ that occasioned much discussion in the subsequent months – a major topic of which was the correct language required to describe the palette of each sunset. Ascroft, an artist who had long been concerned with the chromatics of the sky, set about using pastels to record the sunsets, often making many sketches in a single evening. When the Royal Society came to compile their report on the eruption and its consequences it was Ascroft’s illustrations that were chosen over the work of trained meteorologists. For this purpose Ascroft’s evocative images were reproduced using the latest lithographic technology provided by the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company (Zaniello, 1981; Cattermole and Wolfe, 1987, p 38).

Figure 23

Oil painting of a sunset in deep reds and black

One image in a series of sky sketches by Ascroft. Sky Sketches; illustrating optical phenomena.

More generally, it should not surprise us that, when image-making involves the use of complex high technologies, the relationship between notions of objectivity and the unmediated depiction of nature becomes as highly complicated as in the cases of Howard’s clouds and Nasmyth’s Moon.[4]

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/140208/004