I find myself writing this piece on the christening of the world’s first-ever photograph of a black hole, named “Powehi.” The name means “the adorned fathomless dark creation” or “embellished dark source of unending creation.” I cannot help but think about the correlation between this name and photography. We know that “photography” is from the Greek and means “drawing with light” where light is not. Powehi is the drawing forth of light into the darkness.
Light and dark, day and night, near and far, macro and micro. Counterparts that also relate to science and photography. Each makes visible what is otherwise unseen or unknowable. Both involve creation.
It makes me wonder, then, what kind of relationship science and photography have today. Is it familial? Consensual? Intermittently estranged? Are they lovers? Protagonists? How has their relationship changed over time? These are questions I had before and after diving into Marvin Heiferman’s latest book Seeing Science: How Photography Reveals the Universe.
Through 60 concise, easy-to-digest essays, Heiferman describes beautifully their shared sensibilities. Science and photography are about reproducibility and clarity. About observing phenomena. About description. They transcend any one language, culture, place, or time. Despite technology and all that we know (or think we know), there is still much about our universe that we don’t understand. There are ghosts and gems, promises and allegories for us to chase through the apparatus and the acquisition of knowledge. Brought together, science and photography become even more formidable. They offer a unique magic something; and as Heiferman points out, remain as mesmeric and challenging, as frustrating and tantalizing as ever. It’s this enchantment that makes Seeing Science gratifying: I have more questions – in a positive way – than when I opened the cover.
The essays are punctuated by ten lively conversations originally held online between experts in visual culture. These experts include Corey Keller, curator of photography at SFMOMA, and Ben de la Cruz, Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker and journalist, among others. They act as important informal moments of exchange which are respectful and refreshingly candid.
The book is long but not wearisome; its punchy text and bountiful images keep the reader eager and engaged. Some of the essay titles immediately pique curiosity: “Escape Velocity,” “Vanitas,” “In a Petri Dish” and “The Color of Toxicity,” to name a few.
Throughout, Heiferman reminds us that science and photography are about discovery. A quest to reveal something new, something yet unseen or unacknowledged. He infers that sometimes we don’t see certain things until we’re ready to see them in a certain way. Whether scientifically or photographically, as visual purveyors of the world, Heiferman advocates for our being receptive. Receptive to risk and chance. To acting on a hunch. And, to keeping the faith.
Can science and photography reveal everything? Perhaps better phrased: what more can science and photography reveal? Much, much more it seems. As close as our own eyelashes and as far as the most distant black holes in the universe that, thanks to science and photography, we can indeed see.