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Berenice Abbott's Revelatory Science Photographs on View at The New York Public Library
One of Five Concurrent Exhibitions on Scientific and Medical Imagery"There needs to be a friendly interpreter between science and the layman," legendary photographer Berenice Abbott once said. "I believe photography can be this spokesman." It took many years, extraordinary ingenuity, and a Soviet satellite launch for Abbott to realize her goal, but the results were revelatory. Over 30 of Abbott's spellbinding photographs illustrating scientific principles of mechanics, light, and wave force, among others, are on view in the exhibition Berenice Abbott: Science Photographs at the Humanities and Social Sciences Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. The images are from the Photography Collection of The New York Public Library's Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs. The exhibition
runs from October 2 through January 8, 2000.
The exhibit is one of four related to scientific and medical imagery on view this fall at The New York Public Library's Humanities and Social Sciences Library; another related exhibition is on view at the Science, Industry and Business Library.
How Sputnik Launched a Career in Science Photography
A door was finally opened in 1957 after the Soviet Union's triumphant launch of Sputnik, Earth's first artificial satellite. In response to the ensuing national trauma over the Soviets' victory over the United States in the first lap of the space race, the Physical Science Study Committee (PSSC) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) stepped up the development of its new high school science curriculum. The PSSC needed a photographer to help them convey principles of modern physics, and Abbott, then almost 60, wanted the job. Recalling her 1958 meeting with Dr. E. P. (Bert) Little of M.I.T., she said, "I was never good at selling myself, but this one time! I told him that the scientists were the worst photographers in the world. They needed the best in the world and I was the one."
Abbott was hired on the spot for the first full-time, salaried job in her life. Ecstatic to be working at last on scientific subjects, she devised her own equipment when budgets fell short and stoically deflected the open resentment her exclusive assignment aroused in many of her male, often younger, colleagues. She spent two years creating images to illustrate principles of mechanics, light, and the wave force.
"Many of these images have stayed with me since my high school days," said Julia VanHaaften, exhibition curator and Curator of the Photography Collection of the Library's Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs. "The PSSC curriculum's illustrations instilled the subject's basic principles indelibly."
Among the images in the exhibition is a photograph of huge electrostatic generators developed by M.I.T. physicist Robert Jemison Van de Graaff, which aided early nuclear research. Abbott's photographic lights caused streaks on the image, and she originally considered the picture a failure. Later, the random, lightning-like flaws were seen as evocations of uncontrolled electrical force.
Abbott's water wave photographs produced for the PSSC are actually stop-action photograms. They are "contact prints" of the wave action itself, projected onto photographic paper by flashing a point source light through a pattern of waves in a clear, flat-bottomed tank. In one image, to show how a lens focuses waves, Abbott used a convex piece of plate glass in the ripple tank. Straight waves from the lower edge of the photograph converge after they have passed over the "lens."
Another photograph in the exhibition demonstrates the operation of a parallel beam reflector by showing identical reflections of one image, a compelling photographic print of a woman's eye. The wide-open eye image is one of the series of human elements Abbott rendered in Super Sight in the late 1940s and depicts the poet Muriel Rukeyser, Abbott's friend and Greenwich Village neighbor for many years.
Super Sight Photography
The Super Sight image of soap bubbles on view in the exhibition was created for Science Illustrated to explain possible arrangements of atoms. Abbott finally achieved the clarity she sought by backlighting the suds in a flat glass dish. Other Super Sight images on view include penicillin mold, watch movement, a bird's wing, and bones.
Berenice Abbott's scientific imagery fulfilled a prediction she made in 1941: "The final liberation of photography from the past may come through the new subject matter of science, where there is no precedent for what is seen and photographed." When a selection of her science photographs toured the United States in the late 1950s, under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution, they provided many viewers with their first look at contemporary art photography.
The New York Public Library's collection of Berenice Abbott's science photographs began with prints acquired directly from Miss Abbott in 1960, which are now included in the Photography Collection's "Romana Javitz Collection," named in honor of the former Picture Collection curator who assembled the work. Later additions to the Abbott collection came through gifts and purchases from the photographer's friends and associates.
The other science-themed exhibitions on view at the Humanities and Social Sciences Library this fall are Seeing Is Believing: 700 Years of Scientific and Medical Illustration (October 23, 1999 to February 19, 2000), Sight/Insight: Visual Commentaries on the Physical World (September 18, 1999 to January 8, 2000), and Adventures in Science and Exploration: Drawings by Charles Addams (September 10, 1999 to January 29, 2000). Another related exhibition, at the Science, Industry and Business Library at 188 Madison Avenue, is Earth from Above: An Aerial Portrait on the Eve of the Year 2000 (October 26, 1999 to January 29, 2000).
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This exhibition has been made possible through the continuing generosity of Miriam and Ira D. Wallach.
The Library's Public Education Program will present a series of six illustrated lectures in which scholars explore the history and future of representing scientific and medical concepts. For ticket information on the lecture series, call 212-930-0571.
Berenice Abbott: Science Photographs is on view from October 2, 1999 through January 8, 2000 in the Stokes Gallery (third floor) of The New York Public Library's Humanities and Social Sciences Library, Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. Exhibition hours are Monday, Thursday through Saturday, 10 a.m. 6 p.m.; Tuesday and Wednesday, 11 a.m. 7:30 p.m.; closed Sundays and national holidays. For recorded information about exhibitions at The New York Public Library, the public may call 212-869-8089, or visit the Library's website at www.nypl.org. This press release is available online at www.nypl.org/press.
Please call 212-221-7676 for illustrations/images.
PRO: LS, AW: 9-16-99