Of Matter and Light – Photographing the Invisible

A few weeks ago I came across two interesting books on photography. The first one, Alchemy (thanks Steve for pointing it out to me!), engages with the materiality of photography. The second one, On the nature of things, follows the photographer Fritz Goro’s quest to picture the invisible or incomprehensible.

Fritz Goro was a photographer whose main job it was to cover the latest discoveries of science. To cover scientific discoveries with ‘mere’ photography – and make them look interesting and give them explanatory power – seemed like a rather daunting task to me. What incited my interest even more was a sentence ending with

‘…he did many photo-essays on the properties of matter, producing crystalline images of fire, viscosity, vaporization, density, color photography, and new electronic devices like cathode ray tubes, radar, and television.’

What finally sold the book to me was the claim that Goro photographed a uranium atom (!). So how did he do that? With a guy called Bill Havens, he built a model with ‘lots of lights and wires’, which he photographed more than thirty times. He then superimposed the images, to make it look as if he had photographed an ‘actual atom’ in motion. The image, although not being a photograph of an atom, is absolutely stunning. It looks like somebody had generated it on a computer rather than shot it ‘low tech’ in a studio.

The book insinuates that Goro was so committed to the power of photography to show what is going on even in invisible spaces that ‘even after transmission electron microscopes allowed far smaller objects to be seen, and scanning electron microscopes brought their previously invisible surfaces into focus… [Goro] never strayed from [his photographic emulsion]’. It feels as if Goro was fascinated by the interactions between light and life: he illustrated how DNA and a laser works, he helped design and photograph the first holographic image, photographed the site of the first atom bomb test (which later earned him incurable cancer) and let bioluminescent organisms make their own images (a technique with which he also showed that objects exposed to radiation gave off ‘visible’ radiation afterwards).

Daro Montag, ‘Tree’

The twelve artists in ‘Alchemy’ are also fascinated by this interaction of light with life and matter. The project came into being because despite the ever-presence of images, the possibilities of photography, according to the curators, have been neglected. Photography, originally meaning ‘inscribing with light’ has forgotten about light, about the process that is letting us inscribe images, about materiality, about

‘…the desire to explore ‘perception’ and ‘phenomena’, particularly space, time, light, chemical reaction, the workings of matter, and the transformation of substances’.

Being ‘facilitators’ of (and experimenters with) substance reactions, the artist almost becomes a scientist or alchemist. The editors of the exhibition catalogue explain:

‘The title Alchemy refers to the way the way these artists turn rudimentary materials into extraordinary occurrences that stand outside the realm of everyday perception.’

The ‘occurrences’ (or images) invite ‘new ways of experiencing and interacting with the world.’ Material changes are linked to ‘spiritual’ transformation.

What I like about the book is how it brings to life the moment when photography was first discovered: how it must have been an unbelievable, ‘magical’, ‘enchanting art’ to make images on stay fixed on chemically treated sheets of paper, glass etc. First, the image is even invisible on photographic paper – then, the chemicals magically ‘reveal’ the image. One can imagine how many people could not believe it for a long time.

From magic, photography curiously migrated to science where it was ‘adopted for its capacity to reveal the hitherto unseen structures and forms that underlie the physical universe’.
Photography, whether it was used to show ‘scientific’ or ‘paranormal’ phenomena, claimed neutral ‘objective detachment’ because it was able to capture ‘what is’. One could say that this, to a large degree, is still the case today. The authors of the essays in ‘Alchemy’ question this recurring claim of detachment by citing Bertolt Brecht’s critique of photojournalism which, according to Brecht, ‘has contributed practically nothing to the revelation of the truth about the conditions in this world’.

In the 19th (and some of the 20th) century, artists used ‘pure’ light as a ‘counter culture’ and to escape the limitations of the camera and dematerialize photography and art in general. Artists ‘painting’ with light and ‘bending’ the two-dimensional space of paper. It seems as if total liberation was sought – not only from matter, but from emotion, ‘narrative content’ and ‘imitation of nature’. What was sought was a ‘new sense of reality’.

Today, for the twelve artists featured in ‘Alchemy’, there is no also desire to document ‘life’, ‘truth’ or ‘reality’ in the mainstream way. Instead, their method is to achieve a questioning and re-considering of photography by ‘documenting’ or ‘unmasking’ the photographic process. Daro Montag’s work, for instance, is described as demonstrating the ‘independence of photographic processes from man and overlooked energetic power’

The artists’ work covers a diverse range of issues such as our way of looking at ‘nature’, the possibilities of light as a sculptural and expressive material (‘light becoming the image’), space-time manipulation, mass-production, decay, our planet’s origins and the tension between randomness and order. And I really like the idea that all these thoughts about these topics can somehow be captured and projected on the object or ‘mirror’ we call photo-graph. At the same time it suddenly feels very unbelievable to me!

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