The magazine of photography and ideas
Aperture 211—Editors' Note: Curiosity
What provokes us to pursue something, to want to find out more?
“Curiosity is an oddly ambivalent word,” notes critic Brian Dillon in this issue. It can lead, he points out, to a range of conditions, from utter distraction to deep concentration, all stemming from the “urge to discover.” Photography has long served as a medium of choice not only for the curious practitioner, but also for his or her audience, whose curiosity may be either aroused or appeased by an image. In the following pages, the desire to see and visualize—in the often interconnected fields of science and art—serves as a capacious framework for approaching photography’s relationship to curiosity.
As Berenice Abbott once noted, photography is “science’s child,” a familial relationship well illustrated by revisiting the medium’s early decades. Historian Jennifer Tucker looks back into the nineteenth century, when photographic “first glimpses” of microbes, solar eclipses, or the surface of Mars had lives as both news items and entertaining spectacles, and when the young medium of photography was itself still viewed as something of a technical marvel. Tucker points out that in today’s atmosphere of image inundation “first glimpses”—if they still exist at all—make a less breathtaking impression. The images recently transmitted from NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover, for example, are uncannily similar to familiar photographs of the Earth’s deserts. Such comparisons of the terrestrial with the alien are investigated here by David Campany, who discusses photographs by an eclectic group—Man Ray, Frederick Sommer, and Sophie Ristelhueber, among others—that may cause viewers to wonder exactly what they are seeing. Curator Joel Smith examines an equally inscrutable group of images, by Katy Grannan, Frank Gohlke, Naoya Hatakeyama, and others, in his guide to making (and making sense of ) “photographs of nothing.”
While some artists have more or less intentionally confounded viewers, researchers in other realms of image making have used photographs to show us the world as it is, in an attempt to come to a deeper understanding of the phenomena that surround us. Science historian Peter Galison and artist Trevor Paglen discuss the history of objectivity, as well as how images—now digital, searchable, everywhere—may be shifting from being mere depictions to performing specific functions.
Whether obliquely sidling up to our attention or demanding it outright, one thing that photography has always done is reveal. Harold E. Edgerton, through his famous flash experiments, slowed time down to unveil what had once been “invisible” actions. Berenice Abbott, too, aimed to bring the strangeness and beauty of scientific subjects to the public—as with her renderings of interference patterns in light, or her illustration of static electricity, featured on this issue’s cover. Photography historian Kelley Wilder discusses Abbott’s work along with that of Edwin E. Jelley, a little-known research scientist at Kodak who was fascinated by the forms and structures of light. Jelley’s work paved the way for the commercially available color processes that would be taken up by artists such as Lázsló Moholy-Nagy, who experimented with color photograms in the 1930s. Moholy-Nagy’s images in turn offer a departure point for Thomas Ruff’s latest body of work, also featured in this issue: photograms for the digital era, created with 3-D imaging software. German photographer Horst Ademeit was, by contrast, terrified of technology: his enigmatic and obsessive project, introduced here by curator Lynne Cooke, used the instant Polaroid form to document what he named “cold rays,” an unseen force he believed emanated from his apartment’s electrical sockets. While Ademeit’s fraught attentions were absorbed in an intensely insular world, other photographers train their lenses with equal fervor outward, toward the mysteries of the atmosphere and the celestial bodies. Lisa Oppenheim follows this impulse with her recent “lunagrams,” heliograms, and more, taking her cue from nineteenth-century astronomical imagery.
Whether investigations originate in the nineteenth, twentieth, or twenty-first century, by using the latest technologies or by reviving older ones, the desire to lay bare the unknown is perpetual. Yet, whether the realm is art or science, photography—like any medium of investigation— may lead not to answers but to further questions: as Joel Smith observes here, photographs can “doubt as well as certify, negate as well as indicate, embody absence as well as substance.”