13: science + art = the magic of photography

Photography is the most beautiful science.

Chemistry, physics, and mathematics play a large role in all aspects of photography. This refers to the thought that goes into capturing an image (the proper use of the camera, the law of reciprocity, motion blur, focussing, grain/resolution, diffraction) and the camera itself (the internals, its lenses), the process of developing film (if you work in analogue), and even the post-production stages of editing, enlarging, and the understanding of colour theory. Sometimes the intersection between science & art feels more obvious to me, such as when learning about the camera obscura, or when using a large format camera. Properly determining the length of the large format camera’s bellows using various equations to avoid or ensure aberration (i.e. blurring & distorting the optical system) is a perfect example of the intersection that brings me so much joy. Understanding how to actually adjust the camera to answer the question of why the camera is adjusted in such a way (to convey specific feelings, emotions, and composition) is integral to any photographer’s work. The how is the science; the why is the art.

Have you ever truly thought about the act of capturing an image? When I think about how easy it is to turn a fleeting moment into a visual memory, I feel at awe. I am astounded, yet grateful, that it is possible to turn various degrees of light intensity – or electromagnetic radiation – into an exact replica of an event. If we bring linguistics into the equation, photography stems from the Greek words photos- for “light” and -graphos for “drawing”. Of course, it isn’t just the light that produces the image, particularly in the case of analogue photography. The latent image (invisible image created by light) must be developed into a visible image using chemicals in a darkroom. In the case of digital imagery, the image is produced by means of a sensor, where at each pixel exists an electrical charge. Even though analogue and digital photography feels so different, the simplified mechanics are the same. And what it creates, the photograph, feels timeless.

If we think back through history, since the first time an image was captured, we see so much in the advancement of chemistry, physics, and even math. The evolution of both science and art is clearer, to me, in photography than almost anything else. Before the first photographs were made, the camera obscura (i.e. pinhole) was used to paint precise replications of landscapes (and otherwise). The people who used the camera obscura in their art understood that the size of the hole determined the sharpness of the reflection, as well as the level of diffraction due to a hole that is too big. This basic understanding of image production occurred as early as 5th century BCE! That truly blows my mind. After centuries of advancement in chemistry and optics, the first photograph came to be in 1826. (Before this, people had really already set the foundation for permanent images, but the images would disappear after some time.) Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s photograph, View from the Window at Le Gras, was exposed via a bitumen-coated plate in his camera obscura, which he let expose for several hours. Astounding, isn’t it? That was over 185 years ago!

Since that image, we’ve seen a multitude in advances surrounding not only the science of photography (i.e. the camera, the invention of the lens, the advancement of the chemistry used, etc.), but also a deeper understanding of what place photography has in our world. There is documentary photography, aerial photography, action photography, portrait photography, astrophotography, commercial photography, infrared photography, microscopic photography, time-lapse photography, and much, much more! Photographs are even, now, being used to further scientific understanding, to aid in social change, and to keep archives. Some of my favourite work, and the works I find myself working on (or wanting to work on) are archival in their scope.

When I think of the artists turned scientists in their thirst for knowledge & better technology, and when I think of the scientists turned artists as a result of their inventions, I feel excited and happy. I am so grateful that as a result of this, I am able to call myself both an artist and a scientist, and that I’m able to share my passions for both in a perfect symbiosis, and subsequently exercise both sides of my brain. It is truly the beautiful (yet complex) medley of science and art.

When I truly break it all down, I realise that I am able to hold in my hands all that fascinates me. And that I am able to construct an image with little effort of the finger yet infinite effort of the mind.

Isn’t it awe-inspiring?

xx mvb

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