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Revelations

Revelations: Experiments in Photography was a temporary exhibition that opened at Media Space in the Science Museum in March 2015 and travelled to the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford the following November. It set out to do two things, both expressed in plain terms in the accompanying publication I edited. Firstly, to identify ‘the enormous influence of early scientific photography on modern and contemporary photographic art’. This required us to survey the ways in which ‘nineteenth-century pioneers harnessed a tool to represent the astronomically distant and microscopically small, revealed the nuances of rapid motion, and lent form to invisible energy sources’, along with the ‘radically new set of forms and techniques’ with which those experiments equipped photographic artists (Burbridge, 2015). Crucial parts of that project involved the identification of formal, iconographic and technological resemblances between photography’s applications in nineteenth-century science and within modern and contemporary art. We highlighted links between the photomicrography of Fox-Talbot and art works by Carl Struwe and Joris Jansen, for instance; and underlined the importance of motion studies by Murbridge and Marey to projects by Hollis Frampton, Robert Cumming and Clare Strand. We mapped the importance of camera-less photography to the innovations of artists including Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, Berenice Abbott and Walead Beshty; and reflected on the ways in which celestial photography informed the work of Man Ray, Trevor Paglen and Sharon Harper. At various stages, we envisaged an exhibition that took this type of resemblance as its primary guiding principle, grouping together examples of art and science in much the same way outlined above: some photo-microscopy over here, some motion studies over there, some X-rays somewhere else. In the end, we opted against that model, based on two fairly fundamental concerns. It risked a postmodern flattening of art and science that, at best, would make a fairly obvious point about the relationship between photography, context and meaning. And we feared an emphasis on ontological and formal traits – this is what photography is, this is what photography is good at representing – also risked an inward looking formalism, unconcerned with photography’s functions, its contexts, and its histories (Crimp, 1982).

Figure 1

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

Figure 2

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

Figure 3

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

Our second stated goal was to explore ‘the meanings artists and curators have invested in the early experiments, and what their work exposes about changing popular perceptions of science and technology’ (Burbridge, 2015). That aim appended and changed the meaning of the first, casting the identification of visual similarities as a starting point rather than a conclusion; a means, not an end. We were interested in what science photography meant to artists and societies at different times and in different places and, in particular, what those cultural perspectives meant to each other. That approach was indebted to the work of the German philosopher Walter Benjamin, for whom history should be understood, not as an inevitable linear unfolding, but as a type of constellation: ‘a past charged with the time of now’ (Benjamin, 1940). Our approach was chronological but not teleological; an effort to allow the importance of the science photographs to unfold and build across the exhibition. We wanted to encourage audiences to forge visual and conceptual associations as they made their way from the examples of early scientific innovations in the first room, via avant-garde art of the twentieth century in the centre of the exhibition, to projects made by artists during the past ten years exhibited together in the final room. Repeated motifs, techniques and forms aided audiences through that journey: the surprising appearance of figures frozen in motion, for instance; the interplay of positive and negative images; or the quasi-abstraction achieved when the world is viewed through a microscope. But we also tried to maintain the physical and conceptual space necessary for additional and unexpected links to come into view. Our goal was to promote an active engagement with the manufacture of meaning, in an overarching structure that privileged the analysis of history over a reflection on form.

Figure 4

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

Figure 5

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

Figure 6

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

We felt that approach was best suited to communicating our central thesis: namely, that when artists looked back to an earlier moment in photography’s scientific histories, that glance was shaped by the social, cultural, political and economic contexts in which they worked. As Benjamin highlights, an image of the past is formed in the context of the present, both in terms of artists’ immediate surroundings and the traces of earlier formulations of similar, past moments in previous, past presents (Benjamin, 1940). We were particularly interested in what the photographs had to tell us about shifting perceptions of the relationship between humanity and technology. The more we learnt about the artists who engaged with science photography, the clearer it became that the imagery provided more than a set of novel formal references or technical tools. New modes of technological vision took on an allegorical role as product, agent and emblem for a moment of extraordinary social and cultural change. The machine-produced images – most of them made between 1870 and 1900 – surpassed and exposed the limits of our own optical instrument, the eye. They also helped to establish bodies of knowledge that were applied to further scientific understanding and aid technological development. Cultural historian Stephen Kern links the early science photographs to a shift in the nature of experience and to the processes of understanding (Kern, 1983). Media theorist Scott McQuire discusses the pictures in terms of a ‘transformation to the dimensions of life and thought’ (McQuire, 1998). In order to understand precisely what that change meant in the context of the subsequent moments from which it was viewed, we looked to histories of science and technology and, above all else, to histories of their public reception.

Figure 7

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

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170708/002