Interview: Corey Keller on Brought to Light: Photography and the Invisible 1840 – 1900

December 9, 2008  |  By
Filed under: Conversations
Left: Auguste-Adolphe Bertsch, Male itch mite, ca. 1853–57; Salt print; San Francisco Museum of Art. Right: Wilson Alwyn Bentley, Snowflakes, before 1905; Printing-out paper prints; Smithsonian Institution Archives, Washington, D.C.

[Here, our managing editor of communications, Apollonia Morrill, talks with SFMOMA associate curator of photography Corey Keller about the exhibition Brought to Light: Photography and the Invisible, 1840-1900. More than four years in the making, Corey’s “science show”–as we often heard it referred to during the planning stages–includes examples of early scientific (and pseudoscientific) photography. This Sunday, join Corey in the Wattis theater with film historian Tom Gunning & science historian Jennifer Tucker, as they discuss the representation of phenomena invisible to the naked eye and the potential of photography as a scientific tool. Or, you can check out Corey’s illustrated online tour, also downloadable as a podcast.]

Apollonia Morrill: How were science and photography connected in the 19th century?

Corey Keller: Photography was invented in 1839 and one of the things that interested me was the way it’s a product of science, but also influenced science at the same time. Many of the earliest photographers were in fact scientists, who were experimenting with this optical device, the camera obscura, and then trying to figure out how to capture the picture it made. They were experimenting with new lenses, new optics, and with chemistry. At the same time, because science was becoming so important, it became apparent that the pictures photography produced could help scientists, as a way of sharing information, and as a way of making pictures that was a lot faster and simpler than drawing.

So illustration was the primary function of scientific photography at that time?

Primarily illustration. But significantly, and this was a key aspect, the metaphor that was commonly used to talk about photography at the time was “nature drawing her own picture.” This was important because it positions photography as a natural process, as something that was somehow like the natural phenomena that were being studied. The idea was that the picture generated itself, that there was no artist or scientist intervening … and that this record somehow comes into being as an exact copy of nature all by itself.

There was a broad range of scientific photographs being made in the 19th century. Can you give some examples of the types of pictures in the exhibition?

Because so many of the early photographers were scientists, and because science remains so important throughout the 19th century, photography was applied to almost every branch of science you can think of. But this show specifically looks at photographs of things that were invisible to the naked eye. We begin by looking at photographs made through the microscope–of things that are too small to be seen by the naked eye–and then move on to pictures through the telescope, objects that could sometimes be seen with the naked eye but most often had to be seen with an optically aided eye. By the late 1870s photographic emulsions had improved so much that photography began to record things that can’t be seen by the eye at all. For example, in astronomy that often meant that stars that were too far away to register on the retina would show up on the negative. The exhibition then considers things like photographs of electricity, or motion studies, things that are moving too fast for the eye to perceive. We close with one of the most dramatic scientific discoveries of the nineteenth century, the X-ray. The first X-rays were made in 1895.

Can you say a little more about the idea of the invisible?

One of the things we think about photography is that a photograph has a particular relationship to its subject, which is to say that the photograph looks like the thing it’s a photograph of. But what happens when you make a picture of something you can’t see? You have a picture but then you have nothing with which to compare it. This takes away one of the most basic ideas we have about photographs–that they are a record of the visible world. In the 19th century this was a particularly problematic issue because one of the metaphors people developed to make sense of photography was that the camera functioned like an eye, that it saw like the human eye, but in fact it functioned even better than the human eye, because it didn’t get tired and it didn’t have bias. But when the camera began to be able to make pictures of things that no human eye–no matter how perfect–could ever see, it posed a cultural challenge, and began to chip away at this metaphor. There’s a strange moment where photography and vision come unhinged.

Image above right: Henri van Heurck, X-ray of a hand with a ring, 1896; Printing-out paper print; Courtesy Galerie GÉRARD-LÉVY, Paris

Do you think people stopped thinking of the camera as an eye?

What’s interesting is that they kept using this metaphor, at the same time they were seeing that the camera can make pictures that the eye can’t see. They were also learning a lot about the eye itself, which turns out doesn’t work as well as we think it does. Suddenly there were pictures of things the eye can’t see, and viewers had to put faith in the picture, rather than in sensory experience. That’s something we’re used to today. A lot of the data we receive comes to us mediated. For example, how war is waged today. A lot of war intelligence is gathered by satellite, not so much by spies on the ground anymore. We get data from the satellite and then make decisions based on this mediated seeing. Who knows where the person reading that data is sitting! They could be thousands of miles away. That’s something we’re much more used to now: the idea that you can receive visual data indirectly. However, that was a strange concept in the 19th century. For a long time the photograph wasn’t accepted into a court of law as evidence unless you had a corroborating witness who could testify that the photograph was in fact true. Take X-rays, for example. When people first tried to introduce X-rays as evidence, they had difficulty because nobody could corroborate that the evidence presented on that photograph was true unless you cut the person open! There was no way to correlate that photograph to anything in the real world. And that posed a big problem. It didn’t take them long to get over that, but it was a conceptual hurdle.

Victor Chabaud, X-ray of a plate with crayfish: Radiograph executed by Mr. Chabaud with a cylindrical focus tube, small model, ca. 1897; Musée des arts et métiers, Conservatoire national des arts et métiers, Paris: photo: Michèle Favareille

Can you say more about the relationship between seeing and knowing? I think the adage “seeing is believing” holds true today; did it in the 19th century?

I don’t know when the phrase “seeing is believing” comes into use, but its meaning has changed over time. I’m not sure it holds true today. I think we tend to doubt our vision much more. For example, one of the first things we think about now, when we look at a photograph, is whether it’s been manipulated, or, is it digital? In the 19th century, the phrase would have had a very particular meaning because it was aligned with this new branch of science, with this interest in empirical observation–the idea that you could only trust observable phenomena. And that trusting in observation trickled out into all areas of practice. You see it in realist painting or literature. Scientific culture inflected an enormous range of cultural activities. With photography, replicating the natural world exactly carried an aura of authenticity that fit the world-view of this culture where seeing was believing.

So, despite the fact that photographers began manipulating their pictures early on, photographs still carried an aura of authenticity?

Well, it’s interesting. One of the things that was so shocking about early photographs was, because emulsions were so slow, things that were moving didn’t show up on the plate at all, so you could look at a picture of a street scene, for example, and you would know it actually had nothing to do with what that street had looked like when the picture was taken, because the moving people had disappeared. But there was a cultural belief system that was invested in the photograph, which came to stand for an idea of truthfulness, even though it wasn’t always the case. It’s interesting to look at the discourse that surrounds photography, because even its claims to truthfulness were debated from the very beginning.


How did 19th-century scientific photography influence the development of the medium more broadly, or did it?

Oh, it definitely did. In large part, these experimentations with materials–development of new emulsions primarily–and new cameras, new lenses, and things like that were probably the greatest contribution of science to photography in general. But I think also that scientific photography helped to prove in many cases the value of photography, in the sense of communicating information, not only to specialized audiences, as scientists would exchange photographs, but also to engage the public. These pictures were spectacular and they appeared in fairs, and newspapers, and illustrated journals, and books, and they had an extraordinary ability to communicate to people in ways that other kinds of illustrations didn’t.

Arthur E. Durham, Photomicrograph of a flea, 1863 or 1864; Albumen print; The RPS Collection at the National Media Museum, Bradford, England

Why show 19th-century work in a modern and contemporary museum?

I guess what I would challenge is the presumption that modernity begins in the 20th century. It’s true that museums of modern art tend to focus on 20th-century art, but a lot of people might argue that modernism in art emerges with the impressionists in the 19th century, and that photography in large part contributed to the emergence of modernity; it was part and parcel of this whole conglomeration of ideas–technological, industrial, aesthetic, social–what we call modernity. Photography and modernity emerged simultaneously and are in many ways almost synonymous, I think.

These pictures were not intended as art; are they being presented as art now?

The pictures were certainly not intended as art, but their aesthetic value was not discounted. One of the reasons photography worked was because of this idea of mechanical objectivity I talked about before: the image had an authority that was inherent to it and didn’t depend on the artist’s hand. But on the other hand, people at the time recognized that they were beautiful pictures. And scientists then, like scientists now, always needed support for their work, whether it was government or private support. They used these pictures as a way to draw in the public. There was an enormous movement in the 19th century towards popular science, and a belief that to have a healthy citizenry you had to have a population that understood the most important ideas in modern science, and so they used photography and other kinds of materials as a way of bringing these ideas to the public. The pictures needed to be interesting as well as informational. The fact that they work on both levels is not a contemporary concept.

A. H. Binden, Lightning, 1888; Gelatin silver print, Stephen White Collection II, Los Angeles

So, I’m not presenting them as art. I’m presenting them as part of the visual culture and that’s really, for me, what’s so interesting about photography. In fact, in the 19th century, the percentage of pictures that were made with the idea that they were art is very small. But photography remains the most important form of image-making in the 19th century, and it informed all areas of visual culture, including fine art practice. I’m not making a claim for them as art, because that really wouldn’t be correct. But it is not incorrect to think about them in relationship to art and to the other kinds of images that circulated at that time.

Does that fit in with SFMOMA’s approach to photography in general?

We are very interested here in what we call vernacular photography. Vernacular photography is a loose term. When we use it we talk about pictures that were not made expressly for art… you can’t really tease out art photography all by itself without looking at it within a larger practice of photography and the influences that they exert on each other. I’m interested in a richer history of photography than can be told by just looking at people who identify themselves as artists. Some of the greatest masters of 19th-century photography, who many of us think of as artists, would not have identified themselves so. The questions were different then and it doesn’t make a lot of sense to go back and apply those standards now. It’s a really complex question.

Many people would say well, why would you put these pictures in an art museum? And one of the things you have to think about it is, when people look at art their eye is conditioned not only by art pictures but by pictures we see all the time. You learn how to read pictures; you don’t come to them knowing exactly how to read them. So, you are conditioned by all of the different kinds of imagery that you encounter in your day-to-day life. It might be advertising, it could be illustrations–all those types of pictures affect how you look at any kind of picture. Photography and scientific photography would have fit into that sort of visual education of someone who lived in the 19th century. Part of this is asking visitors to step back a little and think about what it would have meant for someone to encounter those pictures, and how those pictures might have looked to them.

Some of the pictures in the exhibition are in our collection, but many aren’t. Where did you find the others?

Finding the pictures is always the fun part. I’ve been lucky in that there’s been increasing interest on the part of art museums in expanding this history of photography, so it’s become increasingly common for other museums to collect this kind of material. However, in Europe in particular, there are a number of societies that are as old as photography itself, whose members were among the pioneers in these experimental processes, and these societies have been collecting these pictures since the day they were made. They have tremendous, original collections from the makers of these photographs. Some of the pictures were at science museums and some were found by collectors who have passions for this kind of stuff, but it wasn’t quite as easy as putting together a traditional art show in that the pictures were not always in easily accessible places. I had to really search them out.

A project like this takes years and years, in part because first you have to identify the most likely sources to find these pictures and then there’s a lot of word of mouth…people know you’re interested and they send you to someone else who might be interested. This project depended on the good will and the shared expertise of a lot of different people. That was one of the pleasures of putting together this show: I found all kinds of people who are just as interested in weird subjects as I am.

What was one of your favorite discoveries?

One of my favorite places is the Conservatoire national des arts et métiers in Paris, an institution founded at the end of the 18th century for the promotion of science. It was a place where one would go to learn about the latest discoveries in science. They have a tremendous collection of historical scientific instruments and an enormous photography collection–everything from original daguerreotypes to incredible X-ray photographs. It was there that I found an X-ray of a dinner plate with two crayfish on it and a fork and knife next to it. You can see the wires that attach the knife blade to the ivory handle. You can see that the plate is rimmed in some type of metal, probably gold or platinum. And you can see all the detail in the crayfish shells. This incredibly artistic picture was made to demonstrate a focus tube the maker had invented. There’s no reason he needed to make a composition that had an aesthetic sense to prove what he wanted to prove, but I love the way he chose to marry that visual appeal. He knew what kind of impact this picture was going to have. I love the fact that, more than a century later it’s still quite as stunning as it must have been then. It’s probably my favorite picture in the whole show.

Do you think people will be surprised by this exhibition?

I think people are going to be surprised by how modern these pictures look. That’s really what is striking about them. We have this sense that we know what the 19th century looks like: old-fashioned. The fact that these extraordinary photographs continue to surprise us and amaze us is, I think, a testament to both what was going on in the 19th century–this incredibly important, innovative, exciting moment–and to the power of photography. Even today, even though we are so used to it and it’s so ubiquitous, a photograph still has a power over us that’s different from any other kind of picture.

1 Comment

  1. J Says:

    Amazing exhibit and interview! I went to school for Biomedical Photographic Communications and learned much of the techniques used to create some of these brilliant images! I was so excited to see Anna Atkins cyanotype in real life after learning about it in school.

    I would love to see more science oriented artwork presented at the museum!!

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