The methodical approach of science may seem far removed from the artistic spirit of photography, but the two fields are more compatible then many realize. Both photographers and scientists seek to study the world around them, and to make their discoveries known to all.
Scientific photography serves a practical purpose in allowing scientists to document their research and share it with the scientific community, but it serves another purpose aside from that. It allows the power of scientific discovery to be captured in images and shared with the world, whether they’re images of massive astral bodies or miniscule cells, of life-forms that dwell beneath the ocean or the life-forms contained within a test tube.
The history of scientific photography
Scientific photography emerged during the Victorian era, a period which saw both the advent of photography and the beginnings of modern science. So, naturally, it was the scientists who were amongst the first to extol the virtues of this new medium, immediately recognizing its ability to enhance the precision of their experimentation and record their research in greater detail.
They realized that the lens could see things a human eye could not, and believed it would help them explore worlds that were beyond human perception, whether distant space or the microscopic world of bacteria. Being a new technology unlike anything they had witnessed before, they were certainly prone to overestimating its capabilities, and some even went so far as to claim that it could perceive the human soul and reveal secrets about the world beyond death.
Such beliefs led to some odd experiments, such as French neurologist Guillaume Duchenne’s attempts to prove that the human face was linked to the soul, by applying electrical stimulation to the face and photographing the results.
On the other hand, some of the seemingly obscure scientific photographs of the time were part of experiments that produced some significant discoveries, such as Albert Londe’s attempts to determine the causes of a hysteria epidemic sweeping Europe and North America in the 19th century, and his conclusion that attacks of hysteria were linked to past trauma.
Becoming a scientific photographer
Scientific photography is generally considered a career within science rather than photography, and, according to macro-photography-for-all.com, the role is usually held by scientists, researchers and their assistants.
Nevertheless, there is a desire for images bearing the mark of a true photographer, and in our visual society that demand is only likely to grow. As a result, scientific photography is developing into an increasingly specialized field. What makes it unique from other forms of photography is the need to capture both the visible and invisible, so extensive knowledge of photographic techniques related to magnification and lighting is essential.
As of now, scientific photographers are expected to have a strong understanding of both their tools and the research they are documenting. According to the online education portal Now Learning, scientific photography requires both training in photography and a degree in a specialized field of science, such as biology, chemistry, physics or astronomy.
The awe of scientific discovery
Though the primary purpose of scientific photography is to advance our understanding of the scientific method, rather than to be aesthetically pleasing, any image that can achieve the effect of being both enlightening and inspiring will be all the more memorable for it.
Science is a technical discipline, requiring those who practice it to be both objective and methodical. But whether a scientific photographer chooses to be more scientist or photographer, the events they are likely to witness while involved in such endeavors will make it difficult to contain the artist within.
Matthew Flax can see the appeal of scientific photography, a career which has resulted in some amazing images and, in the case of a certain character from Marvel comics, superpowers.
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