The wonders of the invisible world were ideal fodder for the early days of photography, which made it possible--at last--to document the visual reality of the cosmic and the microcosmic in a manner that continues to fascinate. As often as we've beheld the face of the moon, for example--and as high-tech telescopes and space-age communication make outer space a familiar, easily accessed sight--there's still a palpable thrill to be had in examining a detailed close-up of the lunar seas. Indeed, staring into a richly toned portrait of the otherworldly, we are humbled by nature's vastness and complexity.
The photographs in this exhibition run the gamut, of course, from inner to outer space, detailing the medium's remarkable tradition of scientific and medical exploration. The early moon and nebulae views of Rutherford, Loewy & Puiseux, Ritchey, and many anonymous image-makers marked the dawn of the 20th century with strong intimations of man's progress in understanding the universe.
At the same time, the microscopic and hidden human worlds were unfolding for the camera as well. In the late 1800s, microphotographs of plant cells, fossilized wood, or a housefly revealed to photography's popular audience the infinite order and structure of the infinitely small. And the miraculous capacity of the x-ray machine to peek beneath human skin to scan living bone and tissue resulted in haunting medical photography that resonates to this day with a powerful aura of discovery and curative hope.
If anything, photography figures prominently in the early 20th-century feast of scientific experimentation. An image of a bullet being test-fired in a laboratory is one of the earliest stop-motion photographs, and though it may seem more rudimentary and nondescript than truly dramatic, it evokes a powerful "Eureka!" moment. It's a moment in which researchers began to utilize the camera as a reliable tool for verification and visualization, revealing--as it would with Muybridge's famed images of horses galloping--what the eye could never isolate by other means.
Ultimately, the artistic and scientific breakthrough that was photography proved indispensable in documenting the bigger breakthroughs of science and medicine, evolving in tandem with scientific progress--and bequeathing such intriguing relics as these to the ages.