Imag(in)ing the Macrocosm

Berenice Abbott (American, 1898-1991). Magnetic Field from Recto, 1958-1961.

Berenice Abbott (American, 1898-1991). Magnetic Field from Recto, 1958-1961.

  • Berenice Abbott (American, 1898-1991). Magnetic Field from Recto, 1958-1961.
  • Berenice Abbott (American, 1898-1991). Light through Prism, 1958-1961.
  • Berenice Abbott (American, 1898-1991). Collision of a Moving Sphere and a Stationary Sphere, 1958-1961.

Imag(in)ing the Macrocosm

Drew Armstrong 

The images from Cellarius and Hubble diverge from one another in regard to relations they may suggest between microcosm and macrocosm.  Certainly, in beholding Hubble images, and then considering them in relation to work such as Berenice Abbott’s photography, one might seek out parallels between patterns of order as they exist at the largest scale (images of nebulae) and patterns of order as they exist at the smallest scale (images of ripple tanks).

The search for such patterns may in fact underwrite the most venturesome kinds of scientific inquiry today.  Yet, as an explicit subject of commentary, these parallels often lie beyond the workaday concerns of contemporary scientists, and it falls to artists, such as the famous artist-architect Le Corbusier whose work appears on the opposite wall, to scrutinize them closely.  Not so when Cellarius worked.  As Johannes Janssonius (1588-1664) remarked, Cellarius’s work was part of a “general description of the entire world, namely Heaven and Earth,” that avowedly sought to “discover the Harmoniam Macrocosmicam, the concordance and harmony of the Great World,” one that required terrestrial phenomena to “correspond… correctly to the heavenly bodies in a given proportion and comparison.”


Abbott and the MIT Physical Science Study Committee

Colleen O’Reilly

In 1958, Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) was hired by the Physical Science Study Committee (PSSC) at MIT to work on the development of a new physics textbook for American high school students.  In the wake of the launch of Sputnik and anxieties about the global competitiveness of American science and technology, the National Science Foundation offered funding to the PSSC and other organizations who wanted to revitalize science education so that more young people would pursue scientific professions.

Abbott, who had been working on science as a subject of photography since 1939, endeavored to make high quality images for the PSSC that clearly explained laws of motion, wave behavior, magnetism and other phenomena. For Abbott, this required the active intervention and creative imposition of an artist, traits that people sometimes imagine lie outside the realm of scientific images.

Like many scientific images, Abbott’s photographs visualize principles that have no essential visual form.  She represents abstract concepts as concrete visual events.  As much as Abbott may reveal or penetrate nature, she also actively generates visual forms.  The apparently straightforward images belie the complexity of the processes by which they were made, which included the orchestration of lights, the deployment of mechanical devices, experiments with equipment, and the coordination of a team of people.  These methods were designed to result in images that would answer to her artistic, pedagogical agenda.

Physics was published in 1960, and Abbott was subsequently pushed out of the project, in spite of the success of her photographs and the extent to which they were used.  She expressed deep disappointment with how the reproductions looked in the textbook, but always said that the work she did at MIT was some of the most exciting of her career.  Abbott continued to work with these images, which were circulated in the early 1960s by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service as an exhibit entitled “The Image of Physics”, and continued to be published in science journals, art magazines, and books for general audiences.  They also were and continue to be shown in museums as art objects.

Berenice Abbott
American, 1898-1991

Documenting Science, ed. by Ron Kurtz
Published by Steidl, Göttingen, 2012

To me photography is a means, perhaps the best means of our age - of widening knowledge of our world. Photography is a method of education, for acquainting people of all ages and conditions with the turth about life today."

-Berenice Abbott, "Statement in Regard to Photography Today," unpublished text, 1964
On loan from Frick Fine Arts Library, University of Pittsburgh


NASA Hubble Space Telescope Images

Cellarius, Harmonia Macrocosmica (1708)

Astronomical images have undergone enormous changes over the past few centuries.  Such pictures present a coherent set of issues, as they strive to picture celestial objects, provide visual supports for human knowledge of them, pack information into images, and make manifest patterns of order.

What Hubble space photographs show are not things a human observer can ever perceive, even when the observer looks through a telescope.  Hubble space telescopic images present us with data that only emerge, as data, from the particular artifices that bring them into being: above all, compositing photographs taken at different moments in time, and coloring them in accordance with protocols that theoretical knowledge dictates.  This fact does not imply that Hubble photographs are unreliable, but simply means we cannot view the information they offer as possessing straightforward counterparts in observation.

Plate 6 of Harmonia Macrocosmica by Andreas Cellarius (c. 1596-1665) pictures the world system of the sixteenth-century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601); In Brahe’s schema, the planets revolve around the sun, but the sun and moon revolve around an unmoving earth.

As is the case with most of the images in Cellarius’s monumental work, his depiction of Brahe’s system shows us something that itself can never be seen, the network of trajectories that celestial bodies follow.  At the same time, the system in question rests entirely on visual data, information available to human observers that they subsequently integrate into an account of the heavens.  Brahe, in fact, belonged to the last generation of astronomers who worked entirely with the naked eye.  Cellarius has taken some liberty in updating Brahe’s system, including the four moons of Jupiter that Galileo had only discovered after Brahe’s death, with the aid of a telescope.

Both the Cellarius images and the Hubble photographs are not themselves agents of investigation—neither the Cellarius images nor the Hubble “outreach” photographs aim to establish things we do not already know, but strive to communicate pre-existing knowledge to non-specialist audiences.