Berenice Abbott and the Physical Sciences Study Committee: Photographically Visualizing Physics in Mid-Century America

In Berenice Abbott’s physics photography of the late 1950s, light and its relationship with her camera were mobilized as sculptural tools, bringing into concrete form invisible key principles thought to underlie the workings of the universe. While scientific photography is sometimes thought of as a point of access through to an untouched world, Abbott’s art-science practice is much more aptly framed as a creative, generative process in which photography is put into a conceptual relation with subject matter, and viewers learn physics via their understandings of photographic image-making.

Abbott worked with the Physical Science Study Committee as part of their efforts to revamp American high school physics education in 1958-1960. As part of this team, she manipulated flashes to cause moving objects to form themselves into diagrams, or to draw shapes that could be analyzed by students in order to learn subjects such as magnetism, wave motion, and gravity. Abbott often aligned an ability to “see” photographically with an ability to “see” more metaphorically, as in to understand and relate in a genuine way to the world around us. Physics was her perfect subject, a world in which the materiality and modernity of photography seemed in an intimate closeness with the secrets of science. In her process, artistic and pedagogical goals were inseparable, and the images were designed to function alongside text and mathematics, which has made them difficult for art historians to interpret. Furthermore, Abbott’s contemporaries characterized her collaboration with scientists differently depending on the disciplinary context; she was either creating beauty to inspire people, or illustrating scientific facts. Neither explanation fully accounts for the specificity of the way in which she used the photographic technology of her time to explicate natural phenomena.

Colleen O’Reilly

Colleen O’Reilly is a PhD candidate in History of Art and Architecture at the University of Pittsburgh working on visual pedagogy and photography in 20th century American art, design, and science.  Her dissertation examines Berenice Abbott’s scientific photography, Will Burtin’s science exhibitions, and the mid-century discourse on “visual literacy.”