Photography and science have long been intertwined bedfellows, helping to shape the way we look at the world. Scientists use photography to see what they cannot see with the naked eye, and to document natural phenomena or the processes behind their research. Our understanding of outer space is as dependent on images sent to Earth from the Hubble Space Telescope as our understanding of our own bodies is dependent on X-rays. In these cases, photographic images serve to mediate the human experience of the external world, making visible what lies beyond human perception.
Photography is also an instrumental tool in communicating what goes on within the scientific fields to the broader public. “We’re not so separate from science as we used to be,” said the writer and curator Marvin Heiferman, who has developed exhibitions and programs examining the relationship between photography, science, and visual culture. This premise lies at the heart of Seeing Science: Photography, Science and Visual Culture, a yearlong project produced and curated by Heiferman in conjunction with the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Though the project was initiated and sponsored by Maryland’s Center for Art, Design & Visual Culture (CADVC), it’s largely taking place outside of the art world. Since its launch in September, the Seeing Science website has published an interactive timeline, short essays on how filmmakers and illustrated textbooks mold our vision of science, and weekly mini exhibitions that illustrate the myriad uses of scientific photography through a curated selection of images.
But Heiferman stresses that science and art have much in common. “The discussions I was having with people in the sciences were particularly interesting to me, because they loved images as much as artists did, but loved them in different ways and for different reasons,” he said. “The more I talked to scientists, the more parallels I saw between scientists and artists in terms of their curiosity, in terms of their enthusiasm, in terms of their willingness to go and try to figure the world out.”