How do we know what an amoeba looks like? How can doctors see the details of our skeletons and internal organs? What enables us to see an exploding star in another galaxy? All of these things are made possible through the innovations of photography. There are entire worlds out there that we have only seen because of photography’s existence. Most people are probably quite familiar with the nature photography of the National Geographic sort, which expands readers’ visual experience to untouched rainforests, and deep, dark oceans.
Photography and Science are intertwined from the start. The camera has become an important tool altogether fields of research, while the event of photography has directly spurred scientific progress. For centuries, scientists who wanted to depict the visual aspects of science had to rely on paintings, etchings, and even delicate glass sculptures to present worlds too microscopic or ephemeral for the naked eye. Microorganisms, for example, are abstract notions for many people who haven’t seen them through a microscope. Only recently has the general public been able to see what individual cells look like, as science photography mastered the art of the very small, and captured the beauty in these worlds.
When science and photography met
The early efforts of photographic pioneers to repair permanent images contributed enormously to chemistry, as they found how compounds react with light, and to physics, as they developed the optics required for sharp focusing. Later, researchers pushed photography far beyond the narrow confines of what we will see with our naked eyes, to the vast reaches of the spectrum at wavelengths longer and shorter than light — like X-rays.
However, for life on Earth, the foremost important impact of space photography has been to seem back at our planet. Apollo astronauts take two pictures on lunar missions – “Earthrise” in 1968 and “Blue Marble” in 1972 — had an enormous influence on the burgeoning environmental movement. Today, remote sensing satellites play a critical observing role, from tracking storms to monitoring agriculture.
There has always been a foggy photographic barrier between Science and Art. Take the weirdly named Eadweard Muybridge, one among the best English-American photographers. His work on animals and humans in motion, specifically the sequences of running horses and men, provided precious biological information about animal movement. They are also visually stunning proto-movies.
A newer example is that the Swedish medical photographer Lennart Nilsson, now 93, took us on unprecedented journeys through the physical body during the 1960s. On the way, he showed the general public for the first time how the fetus develops inside the womb, also as using endoscopy, for instance, the unexpected great thing about our innards.
The other photographer looks at the disease. Maja Daniels’s photos show what life is like living with Alzheimer’s, a beautiful journey of a patient who decided to pre-empt cancer.
Disturbing differently way is Maija Tammi’s focus on the inevitable biological process of decay. Her images of a rabbit carcass rotting away relate to forensic science, that decomposition rates provide important evidence.
Photography and Science are going to be an essential addition to the bookshelves of scientists, photographers, and art historians alike. Clearly, although science photography is used for very practical purposes, science has always allowed, and even encouraged, aesthetics. Photography has managed to revolutionize science communication and carry on a very old tradition of bringing the wonder of science to the general public with both innovation and style.