Science and art meet in this photography show
‘Chickens scared by a torpedo’ may not be Eadweard Muybridge’s most popular work, but it’s definitely the one with the best title. In the 1870s the British photo pioneer broke new ground with his famous study of horses at full gallop. Now his shots of cluckers losing their cool are in an exhibition of science-related photos spanning the last 170 years.
There are trippy colour photomicrographs of mica (1908) from Arthur Clive Banfield, plus nineteenth and early twentieth-century telephotographic space shots, up-close images of the effects of magnetic fields, and the captivating ‘smoke studies’ by Étienne-Jules Marey that influenced aerodynamics. Baffling are Carl Strüwe’s microscopic images of water fleas, which bear an uncanny resemblance to the bison of the Altamira cave paintings. How extraordinary to look back a century or more and see manifest the human desire to understand phenomena both incomprehensibly big and inconceivably small. And this is only the first room of the exhibition.
Room two is dedicated to works from twentieth-century artists responding to early science-focused photography. Bauhaus artist László Moholy-Nagy’s photograms do away with single-point perspective, while motion studies by influential architecture photographer Berenice Abbott exemplify her belief that artists should help make science accessible to all.
There are some exceptional works in room three, too. Trevor Paglen’s faraway shots of American military ‘black spots’ are clever, unsettling and beautiful at once; and Ori Gersht’s exploding blooms crackle with catharsis. But the knotty thread that links science to art via photography seems to untangle somewhat in this space focused on photos from the last decade – albeit without detracting from the whole. A survey show with a specialist bent at heart, this is a solid fourth outing for the Science Museum’s new(ish) photography gallery. In fact, it was a plucking marvellous idea.