Seeing how she saw science
Photo exhibit showcases Berenice Abbott’s work at MIT
CAMBRIDGE — The intersection of science and art is technology. Few people have understood that better than Berenice Abbott did, and few people have more ably practiced photography (one of the most splendid products of that intersection) than she did, either. “There needs to be a friendly interpreter between science and the layman,” she wrote in 1939. “I believe that photography can be this spokesman, as no other form of expression can be.”
Just how good a form is made plain by “Berenice Abbott, Photography and Science: An Essential Unity.” The show runs at the MIT Museum through Dec. 31.
It also inaugurates the museum’s new Kurtz Gallery for Photography. MIT has a long and distinguished photographic history. Harold Edgerton pioneered stroboscopic photography there, and Minor White taught there. Abbott herself was affiliated with the institute from 1958-1960, working on many of the 75 photographs seen here.
So the show is as much homecoming as inauguration. It’s also a corrective. Abbott (1898-1991) had one of the great careers in American photography. It was like a three-act play — except that most of the audience doesn’t know about the third act. Abbott spent much of the ’20s in Paris, taking classic portraits of the likes of James Joyce, Sylvia Beach, Jean Cocteau, and Eugene Atget (whose archive she would rescue after his death). She spent the ’30s documenting New York as Atget had Paris. The result was her magnificent book “Changing New York.”
Part of the appeal photography held for Abbott was technical, and that would produce the third act in her career, the one chronicled in this show. She had a tinkerer’s hand to go with her jeweler’s eye. She designed everything from a portable tripod to a photographer’s jacket with 20 pockets (the Kit-jaK) to a way of projecting a camera obscura image on photographic paper to produce extremely detailed images. She called it “Supersight” — Abbott had a bit of ad executive in her, too — and the show includes two striking examples of the process: one of a fish head, the other a closeup 0f a woman’s eye.
Her technical bent helped feed Abbott’s interest in science. More than that, science attracted her on an intellectual and artistic level. “The problem of documenting science,” she wrote in 1939, “and yet of endowing this material so strange and unfamiliar to the public with the poetry of its own vast implications, would seem to lead logically from my previous [photographic] experience.”
Abbott devoted much of the next quarter century to render poetically, yet also exactingly, those vast implications. Some of the photographs could be as mundane as a hand holding a hammer (to illustrate Newton’s First Law of Motion) or a woman’s flyaway hair (as an all-too-familiar demonstration of static electricity). They could be as exalted as a Frankensteinian view of a Van de Graaff generator (Abbott liked the image well enough to hang a large print in her home).
The lion’s share of the show consists of photographs Abbott took at MIT under contract to the Physical Science Study Committee. The PSSC was tasked with coming up with an authoritative yet accessible high school physics textbook. This was considered a matter of some urgency in those post-Sputnik days.
“The science made its own design,” Abbott later recalled. “But just patterns and just beautiful design wasn’t it at all. The principle had to come through first and foremost, and that’s a hard thing to do, really.” Yes, but she made it look easy, marrying precision and imagination. Her images of wave motion, for example, are visually stunning. As elegant as theorems, they’re models of lucidity.
These photographs carry a wonderful epistemological kick with their interplay of abstraction and reality. Physical laws are abstract — yet the physicality of Abbott’s bouncing balls or iron filings reminds me of the real-world consequences of those abstractions. Science is in the saddle, and she succeeds again and again in showing us the horse.
As a counterpoint to the intangibility of scientific principles, curators Julia Van Haaften and Gary Van Zante have included quite a few actual things in the show. There are copies of the physics textbook Abbott contributed (and in multiple translations), a Kit-jaK, one of her view cameras, many examples of her correspondence, and two crates that the Smithsonian used to ship a traveling exhibition of her PSSC images to 32 venues.
The most impressive example of thing-ness isn’t in the gallery. A blown-up image of “A Bouncing Ball in Diminishing Arcs” hangs on the museum’s exterior facing Central Square. Seeing it is as much of a treat for anyone in the vicinity as getting a sundae at Toscanini’s (well, almost).
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org