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Revelations: Experiments in Photography

23 April 2015 | Laura Stevens

The Science Museum presents a fascinating exhibition with Revelations: Experiments in Photography with an original X-ray photograph on display alongside the amazing photoartist work of Hiroshi Sugimoto.

Today we are comfortable with the paradox of seeing the unseen. X-rays can reveal broken bones, foetuses can be miraculously photographed and even primary school text books contain photographs of galaxies light years away. Yet this is a modern phenomenon, with photography only being invented in the 1840s. This huge shift in perception has inevitably had a huge influence on how artists perceive and depict their world, and this relationship is the backbone of Revelations: Experiments in Photography.

The Science Museum’s latest exhibition looks to reveal and interrogate the untold history of the enormous influence of early scientific photography on modern and contemporary art. Revelations examines how subsequent generations of photographers have celebrated, recognised, developed and critiqued the incredible aesthetics that resulted from these early experiments. 

Dr Ben Burbridge, co-curator of Revelations said: “Early scientific photographs both exposed and surpassed the limits of human vision.

“In doing so, they revealed important formal possibilities, and spoke in clear and articulate terms about man’s changing relationship to science and technology.”

The mystique of the early photographers is beautifully articulated in William Henry Fox Talbot’s, the inventor of photography, words in 1839:

“A person unacquainted with the process, if told that nothing of all this was executed by the hand, must imagine that one has at one’s call the Genius of Aladdin’s Lamp.

“And indeed it may also be said, that this is something of the same kind. It is a little bit of magic realised.”

The Science Museum displays the “magic” of these early photographs by showing rare scientific photographs from the National Photography Collection for the first time. These include Fox Talbot’s experiments with photomicrography and an original negative of an X-ray.  

The amazement of photography penetrating solid flesh with Wilhelm Rontgen’s X-rays must have been staggering to patients, and just one of the ways as Greg Hobson, co-curator says, “in which photography could lend form to things that were not normally visible to the human eye.”

Capturing deepest dark space on camera was another huge leap in the imaginations of artists and scientists alike, and seeing work from both fields alongside each other emphasises the connection between these two spheres.

Photography also allowed movement to be slowed down and studied, as the camera captured it. For Hobson, ‘photography’s ability to give form to the intangible’, helped expand the study of movement and form in art through immortalising a single instant.

From a science focused beginning, the exhibition flows into the second and third sections: The New Vision: Scientific Photography & Modern Art and After the Future: Early Scientific Photography & Contemporary Art. By depicting the developments in science, alongside movements in art the parallels and correlations are vividly depicted.

In the final room the photographic artists of Hiroshi Sugimoto and Ori Gersht epitomise the blending of these two disciplines, which are often seen as disparate. The images are enormous and display the stunning detail that photography now allows in art, with vivid and exact colours.

The Science Museum has illuminated a hidden area of science and art history in Revelations: Experiments in Photography. Bringing together previously unseen early photographs and stunning contemporary art, Revelations depicts the influences and changes that occurred when science saw through the barrier, and visualised the invisible.

Revelations: Experiments in Photography is at the Science Museum 20 March – 13 September. For tickets go to their website.

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