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Berenice Abbott: Documenting Science

by Ron Kurtz, Editor; with Essays by Julia Van Haaften and John Durant
Stiedl, Commerce Graphics, London, UK, 2012
180 pp. illus., 93 tritone plates, 6 illustrations. Trade, UK £50.00
ISBN: 978-3-86930-431-1.

Reviewed by Hannah Star Rogers
Science, Technology, and Society
University of Virginia

hsr9@cornell.edu

Berenice Abbott: Documenting Science offers a sumptuous display of photographer Berenice Abbott’s (1898-1993) images of scientific concepts, many of which have rarely or never been displayed. The book begins with three illustrated essays and, then, moves into six sections of photographs covering some of Abbott’s major scientific themes, including Motion, Light and Optics, Chemistry and Biology, Electricity, Waves, and Science and Industry. This book also serves as the catalog for the exhibit “Photography and Science: An Essential Unity,” curated by Gary Van Zante and Julia Van Haaften, now on display at the MIT Museum (May 3-December 31, 2012).

Essays by Van Haaften, who is completing a book on Abbott, and Durant, a scholar of Science & Technology Studies, focus on the conditions of production for Abbott’s science photographs. Abbott worked with both artists and scientists.  She trained in New York as a sculptor, and left for Europe in 1921. In Paris, she became Man Ray's photographic assistant. There, she saw Eugène Atget's photographs, and she was credited with solidifying his legacy by reproducing his work from negatives. In 1929, Abbott returned to New York and directed the documentary Changing New York for the Federal Art Project. She wrote photo technique guides and even invented the Supersight camera, a direct photo process that aimed to reduce photographic grain. After a full career in the art world, Abbott began pursuing scientific photography. Abbott’s artistic work is well known, but the scientific images she created later in her career also reflect her realist interests. Seeing the array of Abbott’s crafted images arranged in terms of their scientific subjects allows us to see her entire body of work afresh.

Abbott created an enormous number of science-related images and held two major science positions: She was the photo editor of Science Illustrated and the photographer for a major high school textbook, Physics (1965). In 1956, the Physical Science Study Committee (PSSC) began assessing physics curricula across the United States. This effort resulted in the publication of a new textbook, Physics, which was illustrated with Abbott’s now iconic bouncing ball. By 1960, an exhibit of her photographs called “The Image of Physics” was being organized at the Currier Museum of Art and would eventually tour as a Smithsonian Traveling Exhibit.

Abbott’s realist images were created in a highly-stylized mode. Despite Abbott’s stated aim of making science accessible to the laymen, a tension exhibits between the everyday objects she uses to demonstrate scientific concepts and images that might easily be misinterpreted as abstract arrangements of instruments and light. In “Magnetism with Key” Abbott presents the concept of a magnetic field by showing the interaction between an iron filings and a bar magnet. Into this world of technical instruments, Abbott positions an everyday object, a door key, to create a temporary magnet, which has the effect of domesticating the somewhat alien world of magnetic fields into a more familiar property of common objects. A similar idea is at work in “Static Electricity.” A woman holds a comb away from her head, showing the effect of static on the arrangement of her hair. In contrast, careful study required to understand the science in an image like “Focusing Water Waves.” At times, it would be easy to mistake these images for abstract photography, rather than the communicative properties Abbot intended that they should afford.

Kurtz essay explains Abbott’s relationship to the scientific subject. In her Science Manifesto, completed by 1939, much earlier than the 1940s-1960s images in this book, Abbott wrote that a new branch of photography was needed. “We live in a world made by science,“ Abbott explains, “yet millions of laymen do not understand or appreciate the knowledge which thus controls daily life.” Abbott explains that photography can serve as the ideal “spokesman” for science. The Science Manifesto, which began as a letter to a scientist friend, contains many admirable sentiments about broadening scientific literacy, but there are also ideas that remain contested at the intersection of art and science. The idea of the photographer as a conduit for scientific knowledge or as a science popularizer continues to be only a partial story about the relationship between science and photography, or indeed science and art.

And it is here that the photographer seems to sell herself short, and the authors may do a bit more to explain her contributions. Abbott is doing far more for viewers of her photographs than sending scientific messages through a black-boxed camera: Her photographs contain more than the objects in the images. Many of the photographs attempt to convey scientific principles or theories, like the way that gravity or magnetic fields operate which cannot be directly photographed. Instead, they must be made into visual displays through the photographer’s vision. These images required a deep knowledge of both scientific subjects and photographic techniques. These photographs are more than documents of science: they materially contribute to scientific thought.

Along with the three framing essays, this book offers readers an encounter with the images in a large format and, when available, Abbott’s own notes about her photographic methods. Documenting Science strives to bring Abbott’s photographs back into conversation with her well-known early career works and with contemporary conversations about visualization in science, and in these ways, the book is a success.


Last Updated 1 December 2012

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