U.Va.'s Fralin Museum of Art Photography Exhibit Makes Science Visible

August 17, 2012

"Making Science Visible: The Photography of Berenice Abbott," which opens Aug. 31 at the Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia, explores how the photography of Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) has been used in both artistic and scientific contexts.

Abbott's images are important in art, science, documentaries and the history of science education. Trained in New York as a sculptor, she left for Europe in 1921. In Paris, she became the Surrealist artist Man Ray's photographic assistant and saw the photographer Eugène Atget's work. In 1929, Abbott returned to New York and began a series of documentary photographs of the city and directed the "Changing New York" project for the Works Progress Administration in 1939.

By the early 1950s, Abbott was experimenting with photographs of scientific subjects, and produced images of an array of scientific processes. On display in this exhibition are photographs of magnets, parabolic mirrors, insects, soap bubbles and bones created for scientific textbooks and Science Illustrated magazine. Her images represent a unique melding of science and art, which produces an aesthetic that compels the viewer while also conveying scientific ideas.

"Abbott wrote a science manifesto saying that there needed to be a new kind of photography – a special branch that would be realism for science," said exhibit co-curator Hannah Star Rogers, a lecturer in the Engineering School's Science, Technology and Society Program. "She believed that the eyes of the photographer could contribute to science."

Abbott's photographs document science, but they also demonstrate processes. Simply showing magnets or a mirror was not enough for Abbott: her images make visible processes addressed by science, such as revealing the field lines of a magnet placed in iron filings.

Her photographs are singular because of their content. While there is a long and well-researched tradition of artists' involvement with natural history, Abbott's photographs also include physics images, which can be understood as two-dimensional models of physics concepts. Abbott's photographs offer an opportunity to reflect on not only the ways that science influences art, but also how art influences science.

"For science, it is being more and more recognized that photographs such as Abbott's can impact scientists' conceptualization of the subject matter of those photographs," said co-curator Worthy Martin, associate professor of computer science and acting director of the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. "Computer visualizations from computational models, such as John Hawley's models of galaxy formation, are a contemporary example of this concept, in which careful image composition can help us see and understand things that are not recognized by the naked eye, or for the models, even accessible to the naked eye."

This fall, Rogers' fourth-year engineering students will visit the exhibit to explore the role of images in scientific practice.

"Making Science Visible: the Photography of Berenice Abbott" will feature Abbott's original photographs from the museum's collection and scientific texts containing her work.

In conjunction with the exhibit, Martin and Rogers will give a Lunchtime Talk on Oct. 23, from noon to 1 p.m. Museum volunteer curator Stephen Margulies will give a Saturday Special Tour on Sept. 22, from 2 to 3 p.m. and a Lunchtime Talk on Nov. 13, noon to 1 p.m.

Museum programming is made possible by the support of The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation.

The exhibition is made possible through support of Arts$, Albemarle Magazine, the Linwood "Chip" Lacy (SEAS 1967) Fund, Ivy Publications LLC's Charlottesville Welcome Book and The Hook.