“A Drop in the Bucket of the Principles of Science”

Berenice Abbott (1898-1991), Parabolic Mirror, 1958 (22.1986)

Parabolic mirror is created by group of small mirrors. Light from an object (the eye) is reflected by each mirror to same point (camera). This illustrates, basically, a principle used in mirrors of astronomical telescopes. Think, February 1962, p. 9)

Berenice Abbott says this was one of the hardest photos that she ever made, and it was important to include the “funny, little, homely base.” Perhaps this photo reflects Abbott’s surrealist roots and the influence of surrealist friends (Man Ray, etc.). Coincidentally, at around the same time, Weegee was, apparently effortlessly, cranking out a multitude of photos of multiple eyes using mirrors and kaleidoscopes (an early scientific instrument).

Berenice Abbott (1898-1991), A Bouncing Ball in Diminishing Arcs, 1958-61 (24.1986)
One of Abbott’s early science photos, made in a small basement, characterized by the complex lighting used to maintain the blackness of the black background and to retain the three-dimensionality of the bouncing (golf) ball.

Berenice Abbott speaking about her science photos at ICP on November 5th, 1979.

After Berenice Abbott stopped photographing New York, she wanted to photograph science. Portraits of big little things, often unseen to the naked eye, unchanging science. For about 20 years she tried to make science photos, and was unsuccessful in finding support. A letter that articulates Abbott’s interest in photographing science:

We live in a world made by science. But we–the millions of laymen–do not understand or appreciate the knowledge which thus controls daily life.
To obtain wide popular support for science, to that end that we may explore this vast subject even further and bring as yet unexplored areas under control, there needs to be a friendly interpreter between science and the layman.
I believe that photography can be this spokesman, as no other form of expression can be; for photography, the art of our time, the mechanical, scientific medium which matches the pace and character of our era, is attuned to the function. There is an essential unity between photography, science’s child, and science, the parent.
Yet so far the task of photographing scientific subjects and endowing them with popular appeal and scientific correctness has not been mastered. The function of the artist is needed here, as well as the function of the recorder. The artist through history has been the spokesman and conservator of human and spiritual energies and ideas. Today science needs its voice. It needs the vivification of the visual image, the warm human quality of imagination added to its austere and stern disciplines. It needs to speak to the people in terms they will understand. They can understand photography preeminently.
To me, this function of photography seems extraordinarily urgent and exciting. Scientific subject matter may well be the most thrilling of today. My hope of moving into this new field comes logically in my own evolution as a photographer.
After I had explored the possibilities of portrait photography in Paris for some years, I set myself the task of documenting New York City. Now after ten years of work at this interpretation, I find this phase of my career rounded out with the publication of my book, Changing New York.
The problem of documenting science, of presenting its realistic subject matter with the same integrity as one portrays the culture morphology of our civilization, and yet of endowing this material so strange and unfamiliar to the public with the poetry of its own vast implications, would seem to me to lead logically from my previous experience.
I am now seeking channels through which this new creative task may be approached.
Berenice Abbott
New York City, April 24, 1939
Source: Berenice Abbott: Photography and Science (1939)

In 1958, motivated, in part, by the low quality and lack of originality in the science book illustrations of the time and the launch of the Sputnik 1 satellite by the Soviet Union in 1957, Abbott got a job with the Physical Science Study Committee (PSSC) at MIT to illustrate a new physics book. For about three years she had a great time photographing the principals of science. She speaks about some of the obstacles and prejudices and lighting difficulties that she had to overcome to make her photos. Intriguingly she refers to herself as “the least arty photographer in America” and states that she “hates art photography.” Abbott concludes by saying about her science photos “I don’t know. Hope something comes of them some day.”

In addition to this blog post, Abbott’s science photos have been widely published and exhibited posthumously including: “Berenice Abbott: Portraits, New York Views, and Science Photographs from the Permanent Collection” at ICP in 1996, and in the twenty first century “Berenice Abbott: Science Photographs” at The New York Public Library in 1999-2000, and “Berenice Abbott: Photography and Science: An Essential Unity” at MIT in 2012.

Abbott’s science photos were featured in IBM’s Think magazine in 1962:

Think, February 1962 (cover, pp. 6-9)

A classic problem for physics teachers is to give vivid laboratory demonstrations of the physical phenomena they are discussing. Now, various experts have joined forces to bring help. for example, by combining great imagination and several photographic techniques, such as time exposure and stroboscopic flash, Berenice Abbott has produced images so vivid that some of them show students more than they see in the lab.
This sort of see-it-yourself science illustrates the modern teaching aids developed by the Physical Science Study Committee, a group of university and high school teachers, which was created to give both high school and college students a firmer footing in physics. The PSSC project was launched in 1956 with a grant from the National Science Foundation, which has contributed most of the financial support. (The Ford Foundation and Alfred P. Sloan Foundation have also contributed.)
The result of the PSSC work is a fresh approach to physics in the form of a vastly improved textbook (physics, D.C. Heath) in which graphically clear illustrations appear. The new method cuts down learning time for fundamentals so that students can move on, at a faster pace, to the more advanced theories of the modern world – a world where some of them will pry into the secretive heart of the atom, while others will pear out to the unknown regions of outer space.
Think, February 1962, pp. 6-8

Making Science Visible: The Photography of Berenice Abbott by Hannah Star Rogers.
Physical Science Study Committee, 1956 MIT Library
Berenice Abbott: Photography and Science (1939) The University of Maryland, Baltimore County
Berenice Abbott: the photography trailblazer who had supersight” by Sean O’Hagan.
Abbott and the MIT Physical Science Study Committee” by Colleen O’Reilly.

Berenice Abbott (1898-1991), Magnetic Field, 1959 (664.1984)

This entry was posted in Fans in a Flashbulb and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s