Department of Art History

The Art of Early Scientific Photography

The Art of Early Scientific Photography
 – Dr Ben Burbridge

Funder: Initial research funded by the AHRC. Further research funded by the Science Museum Group.

This research examines new forms of vision made possible through scientific photography during the period c.1850-1925 and the ways this has shaped art photography up to the present day. It will result in an exhibition at Media Space in the Science Museum in 2014.

Early scientific photography opened previously unseen fields of vision: recording the microscopically small and astronomically distant, revealing the realm of rapid motion, and lending visible form to invisible energy sources. The photographs used technology to reveal new information about the physical world. In doing so, they also revealed much about the capacities of photography as a medium. 

Such pictures have possessed a strong appeal for artists, who have interrogated, re-purposed and expanded upon their original insights. Revelations examines how the changing character of these responses – from the early 20th century avant-garde, to conceptual art in the late 1960s, to contemporary practice – provides an insight into shifting perceptions of early scientific photography, relationships to photographic technology, and the wider cultural context in which artists have worked. 

The research involves two main strands. Burbridge has spent the past two years working with curators at the National Media Museum and the Science Museum to select relevant photographs from the National Collection. He has also developed research started as a doctoral student, tracing the artistic legacies of the photographs across a range of art practices. These take in European modernism, conceptual art, and contemporary art photography and figures including Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, Carl Struwe, Georgy Kepes, Berenice Abbott, John Szarkowski, Harold Edgerton, Robert Cumming, William Wegman, Joris Jansen, Sarah Pickering and Ori Gersht.

The exhibition will open at Media Space, The Science Museum, London in spring 2014.


A major publication, written and edited by Burbridge, and including essays and by Ian Jeffrey, Marta Braun, Gottfried Jager, and Kelley Wylder will be published by MACK.