Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Lenswoman in a Labcoat - Wall Street Journal

Berenice Abbott's science photographs invite us to contemplate the wonder of creation. As photographs utilizing the latest technology to illustrate scientific principles they are quintessentially modern, but the principles they illustrate came into being simultaneously with the Big Bang, so the images are also timeless, taking us both backward and forward throughout eternity. By making manifest the invisible forces that act upon the material world, they do for physics what the mandala does for Hindu theogony, or Kabbalistic diagrams of the sefirot try to do for the Ineffable.

Abbott (1898-1991) was no mystic. In all her work, beginning with the portraits she did of art-world figures in Paris in the 1920s, and most certainly in "Changing New York," her documentation of the city in the 1930s, she strove for clarity. "Real," "realism" and "realistic" were recurring words in her talk and writing about art. Her most frequent term of opprobrium was "arty." She thought of photography as a scientific endeavor, not only because of the optics involved in dealing with light and the chemistry in developing negatives and prints, but also because in her efforts to record the visible universe she adopted some of the methodological thoroughness of the scientist. There is nothing sentimental in Abbott's work.

Abbott's friend, the poet Muriel Rukeyser, also wrote about science and, in general, the leftist politics of Abbott's social circle valorized science; Marxism was thought to be scientific, and therefore infallible. But the attraction science had for Abbott seems primarily to have been constitutional; she was just bent to it. She was, for instance, an inventor who developed a clever unipod and several other photographic devices. As early as 1939, she wrote in her manifesto "Photography and Science": "There needs to be a friendly interpreter between science and the layman. I believe photography can be this spokesman." She concluded, "I am now seeking channels through which this new creative task may be approached."

In the late 1930s and on, Abbott accepted assignments from Time Inc., IBM, Standard Oil and others to take photographs of scientific subjects such as "Vacuum Tubes, RCA Research Laboratory, Camden, New Jersey" (1939), "Electrical Transmission Tower" (late 1940s) and the imposing "Van de Graaff Generator" (1950), which are included in "Berenice Abbott: Photography and Science: An Essential Unity." She was photo editor of Science Illustrated in the 1940s, and took pictures for a textbook of high-school biology. She also developed her "Super-Sight" apparatus, a sort of rejiggered camera obscura that took brilliantly detailed images. The MIT show includes prints of penicillin mold, a moth wing, a fish head, and the movement of a pocket watch taken with the device, all of which are still startling. And, after much experimentation, she figured out how to photograph the structure of "Soap Bubbles" (1946). But it was Sputnik that gave her her grand opportunity.

When the Soviet Union launched the first satellite into an elliptical low Earth orbit on Oct. 4, 1957, all of America was made to realize what many MIT professors and other scientists had known for some time: The teaching of physics in our high schools was inadequate. In 1956 they had organized the Physical Science Study Committee (PSSC) to address the problem, and Sputnik gave their work urgency. They produced a model curriculum and, most important, a textbook, Physics. From 1958 to 1960, Abbott was the staff photographer for the textbook project; the pictures she took are the core of the MIT exhibition.

The titles of these pictures suggest how unusual the subject matter of the images is: "Conservation of Momentum in Spheres of Unequal Mass," "An Asymmetrical Object Behaves Symmetrically," "The Principles of Parabolic Reflection," "Falling Bodies Fall at the Same Speed," "A Bouncing Ball in Diminishing Arcs," "Pendulum Motion and Galileo," "Circular Wave Systems" and "Is Light a Particle Phenomenon?" There is a beauty to many of these images similar to that of some examples of abstract and minimalist art, but the true measure of their success is not so much the aesthetic pleasure they provide as their pedagogic utility. They are, in fact, an immense aid to visualizing the principles described in the text.

"A Bouncing Ball in Diminishing Arcs" was on the cover of Physics and is used in MIT's publicity for this show. Against a black background, a white ball seems to enter the picture from the upper left corner and fall in an arc to a white line at the bottom; it bounces in a parabolic curve to a lower height and falls again; and again; and bounces out of the frame to the right. It is an oddly lovely image and it looks easy, but Abbott's commentary says: "This shows the decrease of energy in a moving object. . . . The golf ball was rolled off a platform that was about six feet high, the relative size is very important here, and it headed towards a marble surface. I was well centered and the camera was low, almost on the floor. I knew as much about lighting this kind of thing as anyone and I didn't just use a strobe at the camera. This would have shown the effect but the balls would have looked flat."

Each picture required a strategy, many required specially designed equipment, and almost all were done over and over until the desired result was achieved. Other people have taken photographs of the effect of magnetism on iron filings, but rarely as ingeniously or meticulously as Abbott did. She was particularly proud of the ripple tank she developed for making images of waves such as "An Interference Pattern" and "Circular Wave Systems." The tank had a glass bottom, printing paper was put underneath, the water was agitated, and a specially adapted strobe set above was fired. The images that were used were actually negatives, but they were easier to comprehend than the positives. The letters, notes and memorabilia on display at MIT make clear how much Abbott enjoyed working with scientists, and how much theyĆ¢€"many of whom were amateur photographersĆ¢€"enjoyed working with her.

The first edition of Physics was published in 1960 and was adopted by nearly 600 schools across the country. By the end of the following year one million copies of Physics were in circulation world-wide, and it had been translated into 17 foreign languages. The Russians printed 57,000 copies, one for each physics teacher in the Soviet Union. The PSSC textbook, illustrated with Abbott's photographs, helped change the way the subject was taught, which is to say it changed the way we understand the world.

Mr. Meyers writes on photography for The Wall Street Journal. See his work at www.williammeyersphotography.com.

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