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chicago report:
berenice abbott and her children

by Victor M. Cassidy  
 








Berenice Abbott
Water Pattern










Berenice Abbott
Magnetic Field










Berenice Abbott
Beams of Light Through Glass












Gary Schneider
Entomological Specimen #9
1992






Catherine Chalmers
Praying Mantis Eating a Caterpillar
1996














Alice Hargrave
Bleeding Hearts; PET Scan Brain
1995








Katherine DuTiel
Bone/Feet from Inside/Outside Series
1994




Catherine Wagner
Sequential Molecules
1995









Catherine Wagner
Definintely Not Sterile
1995












   "There needs to be a friendly interpreter between science and the layman," wrote Berenice Abbott the photographer in 1939. Photography can be "this spokesman," she added, for there is "an essential unity between photography, science's child, and Science, the parent."

Abbott next declared that "the task of photographing scientific subjects -- endowing them with popular appeal and scientific correctness -- has not [so far] been mastered. The function of the artist is needed here, as well as the function of the recorder."

Over the next 15 years, Abbott made several thousand photographs of physical phenomena --ripples spreading through water, iron filings responding to magnetism, light refracted as it passed through glass -- and kept records of the painstaking stagecraft that went into creating each image. When her imagination outran available technology, she invented the equipment she needed, including two new kinds of cameras. Abbott's scientific photographs are as highly regarded today as are her familiar views of Manhattan.

"Artful science"
This spring the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago exhibited photographs and photo-installations on scientific subjects by Abbott and twelve other Americans. Museum Director Denise Miller organized this show, naming it "Scientia Artifex," which is Latin for "artful science." "Scientia Artifex" examines photography's role "as a passive record of the order of things," says Miller, and goes beyond this to look at the ways it "shapes our representations of knowledge."

The photographers in "Scientia Artifex" are Abbott, Kim Abeles, Catherine Chalmers, Linda Connor, Katherine DuTiel, Harold E. Edgerton, Alice Hargrave, Michael Light, Susan Rankaitis, Meridel Rubenstein, Gary Schneider, Catherine Wagner and Todd Watts. According to Miller, these artists "aestheticize, appropriate, fabricate, document, investigate, or reexamine scientific information."

The artists create images that tend to be formal, frontal and unpeopled -- though human presence may be implied. Their photos are generally large-scale black and whites, giving the show a documentary look. Though the work often does not delight the eye, it challenges visitors to think and expands their understanding of photography's possibilities.

The Amazing World
A professor of electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the late Harold Edgerton invented high-speed photography and stroboscopic lighting techniques during the 20's and 30's. These innovations allowed to record events which take place faster than the eye can see.

"Scientia Artifex" includes Edgerton's famous photograph of the crown-shaped splash of a falling drop of milk. Also present is his sequence of a bullet leaving a pistol and piercing a balloon. Edgerton, who was a scientist rather than an artist, opens amazing and beautiful worlds to human seeing.

Photographer Gary Schneider takes seeds or insect parts, places them on microscope slides, puts the slides into an enlarger and projects them onto poster-sized pieces of gelatin silver paper. This technique involves no negative and produces formal, tranquil images which may betray their botanical and entomological origins, but can also suggest stars and other heavenly bodies.

Schneider says that his pictures are "more about an emotional experience of light and space than a description of the specimen itself." In this sense, his work is more art-like than that of Edgerton and Abbott.

Eaten Alive
Catherine Chalmers stages scientific performances. She raises insects, spiders, frogs and other creatures in her studio and then photographs them in lurid color as they eat, reproduce, and prey upon each other. This artist takes a special interest in the way that life and death happen simultaneously in the insect world because, as she puts it, "the idea of being eaten alive is so foreign to human experience."

In Chalmers' Food Chain series, tobacco hornworm caterpillars feed upon tomatoes, praying mantises eat the caterpillars, and tarantulas and frogs ingest the praying mantises. In another sequence, two insects copulate -- and then the female devours the male. These images are printed poster-size, filling the entire frame. Chalmers is an artist whose work shows a part of nature that we would not otherwise be likely to see.

Inside the body
Alice Hargrave and Katherine DuTiel look at the human body from different perspectives. To demonstrate her belief that "the inside of the body is beautiful," Hargrave estheticizes clinical imagery. Beginning with mammograms of cancerous breasts, photos of gallstones and magnetic resonance images of a brain having a stroke, she may enlarge the images, give them a vividly-colored background or print them in series.

For Scientia Artifex, Hargrave installs 24 of her pieces on a long wall with some of the gallstone photos trailing out onto the floor. The effect of her ensemble is so harmonious and romantic that it's easy to forget that cancer and strokes kill people.

DuTiel uses the artistic technique of appropriation to call attention to the body's structure and vulnerability. In her series "Inside/Outside", she projects slides of anatomical illustrations onto a human subject and then photographs the person with their bones, internal organs or nervous system seemingly made visible.

By intention, the projection and the human subject do not quite match, so DuTiel's photographs create an unsettling double vision. There's little in these drab, dark images to please the senses. Still, they stick in the memory for a long time.

"Who are we?"
Catherine Wagner says she wants to know "what impact the changes that emerge from contemporary scientific research will have on our culture -- socially, spiritually, and physically." In her work, she tries "to ask the kind of questions posed by philosophers, artists, ethicists, architects, and social scientists . . . [namely] who are we, and who will we become?"

Instead of conveying scientific truths through carefully-staged images as Abbott did, Wagner makes very straightforward photographs of laboratory paraphernalia -- beakers, flasks, experimental samples -- and hangs these in rows or grids. Just as much of a formalist as Abbott, Wagner approaches her subject more allusively. Her photo-installation of frozen tissue, organ and cell samples (Freezer Typology) is meant to ask what humanity will become.

Competitive edge
"Scientia Artifex" is just one of many outstanding exhibitions presented by the Museum of Contemporary Photography. The Museum was established in 1976 by Columbia College, a four-year institution that specializes in media and the visual and performing arts. It focuses on American photography produced since 1959, which is the US publication date of Robert Frank's seminal work, The Americans.

Denise Miller, who became director of the museum in 1986, has curated more than 100 exhibitions and tripled the size of the permanent collection to about 4,100 photographs by over 500 artists. She's had the idea of "Scientia Artifex" for a long time and took about a year to put the show together.

The Museum of Contemporary Photography has a full-time staff of four plus graduate interns and student assistants. Miller's annual acquisitions budget is "in the tens of thousands and fluctuates widely," she says. She gets some money from Columbia College and raises funds, but states that "97 percent of our collection has come through gifts."

Accessibility is the advantage that lets the Museum compete for gifts with much older, richer institutions. "It's not generally very easy to see a major amount of work from a museum collection," Miller explains. "You have to be a professional and make advance arrangements. But we have interns here who can show photographs to visitors. Some people have walked in off the street and started looking at our collection after just a few minutes. We always welcome students. We're here for them.

"Collectors care deeply about the work they own and don't want it locked away," she continues. "Many of them earned their wealth and they remember what it was like to struggle. They're very pleased when we tell them that their gifts will always be available to students and teachers."

The museum takes its educational mandate very seriously. The first floor exhibition area includes a separate resource room provided with materials that help establish a context for each show. "Scientia Artifex" resources included monographs on the better-known photographers, a scientific video, a software program about the human body and photo magazines.

For each show, the staff prepares an educational packet which is aimed at teachers who bring classes to the museum. The "Scientia Artifex" packet comprises historical information, background on each artist, class discussion questions and a bibliography. Excellently researched and written, it even includes materials for making a zoetrope -- the 19th century optical device that gives the illusion of motion.

The museum just expanded upwards, taking over some space on the second floor of its building. "Scientia Artifex" was the first show in the enlarged gallery, which now has 480 running feet for exhibitions compared to 255 before. "We've really improved the visitor's viewing experience," says assistant director Nancy Fewkes, "and we do a better job of serving people who come to see the permanent collection. We're very excited to have so much more space for exhibitions. We have a thousand ideas."


"Scientia Artifex" at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago, Apr.5 - May 31, 1997.


VICTOR CASSIDY is an art journalist based in Chicago.

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