Go back to article: Moments of danger: photography, institutions and the history of the future

Allegories

I do not have the space necessary to revisit that history in full here. Neither is that necessary for my present purposes.[1] Instead, it should be enough to outline its basic principles with reference to some key examples. Working at the Bauhaus in the 1920s, Lazlo Moholy-Nagy described a ‘new vision’ made available through science photography, which he believed to possess an important socio-political dimension. His work drew on the examples of X-ray, celestial photography and photomicrography to demonstrate new ways of seeing the world, with the express intention of shifting perceptions in ways necessary to build egalitarian societies (Moholy-Nagy, 1925; Kostelanetz, 1969). The technological utopianism of that view was forged in the context of industrial Weimar Germany and the exhilaration of inter-war socialist experiments (Hight, 1995). It did not survive his emigration to the USA to flee the Nazis, news of mass technological killing, nor the horror inspired by the atomic bomb (Moholy-Nagy, 1947).

Figure 8

Colour photograph of a section of the Revelations experiments in photography exhibition at the National Media Museum in Bradford

Revelations: Experiments in Photography exhibition at the National Media Museum, Bradford

The work of Moholy’s Bauhaus associate Georgy Kepes, produced at MIT in the 1950s, conveyed a deep ambivalence about the place of technology in society. Abandoning Moholy’s utopian politics, Kepes encouraged audiences to experience science photography aesthetically in an effort to find stable ground in a world rendered strange and unfamiliar by technology (Blakinger, 2014; Wechsler, 1978; Kepes, 1947). ‘When we see, we interpret the world around us and orient ourselves within’, Kepes explained, thus it was necessary to find ‘patterns through which the poetry of form becomes meaningful’ (1956). That project bears the imprint of wider debates taking place among leading intellectuals at the time. Lionel Trilling spoke about the limits of a scientific worldview ‘incapable of making declarations about the qualities life does not have but should have’ (Trilling, 2000). Max Horkeimer described a troubling shift, as reason – once seen as ‘a spiritual power living in each man’ – became a mere ‘instrument to calculate the production and distribution of goods, bereft of the power to reflect on the human condition as such’ (Horkeimer, 1947). Elements of those views were echoed in the introduction to Kepes’ 1956 book The New Landscape of Art and Science: ‘Our recently acquired knowledge, with all its precision and power, has brought us as much ugliness, discomfort and danger as it has sanity and order.’ Science, Kepes argued, ‘is only one component of the understanding that we need for a well-balanced attainment of human ends’ (Kepes, 1956, p 20).

Figure 9

Colour photograph of a section of the Revelations experiments in photography exhibition at the National Media Museum in Bradford

Revelations: Experiments in Photography exhibition at the National Media Museum, Bradford

Working at MIT eight years later, Berenice Abbott produced exquisite photographs illustrating the laws of physics (Kurtz, 2012). For Abbott, science needed, ‘the vivification of the visual image, the warm human quality of imagination… It needs to speak to the people in terms they will understand’ (Abbott, 1939). Viewed in relation to their wider contexts, the photographs speak both of a radical democratisation of science and mounting Cold War paranoia. Abbott’s project received federal funding only after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. The government’s financial support was based on the need to train a new generation of engineers, capable of rivalling those of the Communists (Weismann, 2011; Durant, 2012). This established a complex, and perhaps irresolvable, tension between the demands of the US military-industrial complex and Abbotts’ own anti-authoritarian goal of democratising scientific knowledge (Abbott, 1939).

Figure 10

Colour photograph of a section of the Revelations experiments in photography exhibition at the National Media Museum in Bradford

Revelations: Experiments in Photography exhibition at the National Media Museum, Bradford

The contemporary art projects in the exhibition marked a further shift in tone. In the work of Trevor Paglen, viewers were shown the night sky not to revel in its beauty or to learn about the stars, but to note the presence of surveillance satellites and military drones (Paglen, 2010). Clare Strand’s photographs presented ironic motion studies of a post-industrial workforce, typing emails, reading Easy Living catalogues, banging heads against brick walls (Drew, 2008). Walead Beshty’s abstract-looking images were produced when unexposed film reacted with X-ray security scanners at airports. Sarah Pickering’s large-scale photographs used the muzzle flash of a firing revolver to create an image, in ways designed to probe the thin line separating beauty from violence. Each, in its own way, gestured towards the instrumentalisation of earlier scientific discoveries as mechanisms of violence, surveillance and control. All took up the mounting ambivalence expressed by artists across the twentieth century as a conscious and overt theme.

Figure 11

Colour photograph of a section of the Revelations experiments in photography exhibition at the National Media Museum in Bradford

Revelations: Experiments in Photography exhibition at the National Media Museum, Bradford

Painted in crude terms, the exhibition traced a growing uncertainty, as the emancipatory promise of the earlier twentieth century became blighted by a century of mechanised warfare, expanding technological surveillance and changes to the workplace. The narrative was developed by published responses to the show. One review discussed the importance of Benjamin’s writings to the installation, and the constellations of images and ideas that developed across the exhibition. Another focused on the contemporary artists, ‘sceptical about the relationship [between art and science]’ and calling ‘into question the positivist scientific ideology often touted as benign and progressive, but which has often proven in practice to be quite the opposite’ (Bush, 2015). I witnessed a similar reaction among a group of MA Art History and Curating students. The exhibition was designed to ensure visitors had returned to the start to exit; forcing audiences to retrace the assembled history back to its nineteenth-century beginnings. The students felt relieved to be back in the company of the early scientific images and everything they seemed to promise. But their appeal had come to feel bitter-sweet now, given everything they knew had unfolded in the intervening years. When we installed the exhibition, my co-curator Greg Hobson assured me that, while viewers may not necessarily think about all we hoped to communicate, that didn’t mean they wouldn’t feel it. Exhibitions can utilise affective forms of engagement less readily available to histories produced using only the analytical tools of scholarly prose (Brown and Phu, 2014). 

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170708/003