Right off the bat you’ll get an inkling of what you’re in for (depending of course, whether you enter at the start of the exhibit rather than stumbling upon it travelling widdershins through the adjoining galleries) at SFMOMA’s Brought to Light, an exploration of early science photography. Mounted on the wall is a triptych, identified at the top with stylish handwritten flair as Patte de la guépe. The image on the left is a photograph made on a normal photographic plate, the one on the right, developed in a special emulsion and using a colored screen. In the center is Fernand Monpillard’s own hand drawn attempt to reveal the details of the segmented wasp of the title’s leg. The contrasts between the three accent much of the promise and dilemma that scientists faced confronted with the emerging technology. The photograph on the left is of course, undeniably, unmistakably real, yet the resolution for the purpose of study left something to be desired. The one in the middle, emphasizing as it does exactly what the artist would like to draw attention to is more useful, but invites accusations of subjectivity. The final image shows that the “real” can not only be improved upon, but may be ultimately subject to some scrutiny as well. Was the use of “filters” a kind of cheat, changing as well as revealing the subject? Which image was more real and how did you arrive at the most real? At this fledgling stage, photography must have seemed the end of a long road of mankind’s striving to represent the world around it: realism had been captured. Already its limitations must have been becoming apparent though. Seeing might not be believing. As the exhibit makes clear, it didn’t stop people from trying to film everything they could in search of answers, everything from bolts of lightning to the human soul. But that wasn’t the only thing that Leg of a wasp: Dark yellow object 1893 (as the piece is titled on the gallery wall signage) represented for me. It also set the tone for the rest of my visit by putting my mind to rest that the collection was one that could be enjoyed rather than endured, because the pieces on view were for the most part interesting aesthetically, aside from any lessons they may have had to teach. Patte was lovingly designed: it is something you’d love to hang on your wall at home (the scientist, like many others whose work is displayed here, even signed it at the bottom!).
The microscopic diadems captured in an image by Hans Hauswaldt for example are so perfectly arranged that they appear like a large circular platter filled with objects salvaged from a junk drawer: pocket watch parts and pills, buttons and rubber bands. While a small set of lenses, attached to the gallery wall is provided with which to view the stereoscopic images, there was something pleasing about the fact that the images always appeared as a duo. X-ray of plate of crayfish, with the freakish “skeletons” of the crustaceans sharing space with the Saul Bass fork and knife is a joke worthy of the Surrealists. There is an albumen print of a solar eclipse by Carelton E. Watkins that is so unearthly that it looks like a painting. Beneath the black hole sun roll wave after wave of clouds, the tips of trees popping out at the bottom of the picture. The strict segregation between sun, heavens and earth emphasize the two-dimensionality and make it seem stylized, the kind of background that would appear in a work by William Blake. Indeed there are many photographs that will make you do a double take thinking that nature can’t quite possibly look like that. Case in point are selections taken from an album of 33 platinum prints by an unknown photographer called 150,000 Volt Disruptive Discharge… (image shown here, like the others on the page taken from Corey Keller’s Audio Tour, which you should watch in its entirety at the earliest opportunity). The crackling tendrils look like they’ve been clipped from the cover of an old pulp magazine cover like Astounding Stories. If you’ve ever thought those bolts thrown around by alien and mad scientist alike looked hokey, blame nature.
The beauty of the presentation of many of the works on display is worth the price of admission alone (which was free, since it was a first Tuesday). A darkened, glassed display window filled with the folding cases of daguerrotypes creates an eerie atmosphere of mystery to the images found within. The image of a planetary disc seems to emerge from the dark as you peer in. What is in fact the sun captured on April 2, 1845 by Hippolyte Fizeau (what a fantastic name) and Jean Bernard Léon Foucault is more what you’d expect of Venus, greenish and veiled in its vaporous mists. A series by one William N. Jennings, a secretary for a Pennsylvania Railroad who took advantage of his job to explore his love of photography until his ship came in when called upon to record the company’s construction sites, was twice as appealing to me because they are apparently still mounted on their original pages. Each one of his gelatin silverprints, tiny, almost passport sized, are affixed to small moleskin notebook-like pages with holes on the left margin for ring binding. The subjects are of lightning strikes, each captured with a slight letter “S” twist like that of a tornado. Imagine carrying around a pocket notebook full of lightning mug shots.
While the exhibit is broken into sections covering the various fields of study that photographers pursued before the turn of the century, it’s just as profitable to wander through and let your interest determine what gets your attention. For example, I largely blew through the familiar Muybridge images in the motion studies room but lingered long enough to appreciate a picture of plaster figurines of a bird, wings poised in varying sequential positions of flight, lined up in a row. The models were destined for a Zoetrope machine where the spinning of the cylinder would create the illusion of movement for the observer peeping through the holes in its side. The name Birth of a Louse (from the image taken by Auguste-Adolphe Bertsch) is a title crying out for a novel. The astronomy section (other than the aforementioned photographs) left me wondering when exactly the dramatic effect of capturing the moon only partly illuminated was first appreciated. Herein too is the story of the man who taught us that no two snowflakes are alike: a farmer it turns out, from Vermont.