Photographic Evidence

The Nature of Photographic Evidence

Kelley E. Wilder


Arthur Worthington, A Study of Splashes, (London, 1908) property of the MPI library


Arthur Worthington, A Study of Splashes, (London, 1908) property of the MPI library

Even before the photographic invention was officially announced to the public in 1839, light sensitive materials were already being used to make scientific observations on the spectrum and on the chemical precipitation of metals. By the late nineteenth century, this use of the photochemical trace in addition to more modern photographic techniques were providing scientists with innumerable insights into the natural world. It became, as J. B. Biot predicted in 1839, "an artificial retina, placed at the disposal of physicists", physiologists, biologists, astronomers, geologists, doctors and all manner of social scientists. Photography recorded things that were, to the human eye and human memory: too small, too fast, invisible, too far away and far too ephemeral.

The relationship between photography and the sciences is wholly symbiotic. Not in the sense that one cannot exist without the other, but instead, that the effect one has on the other flows irregularly backwards and forwards; new experiments are generated because photography is capable of doing what it does, and new photographic technologies are developed in response to particular experimental and observational needs.

Taking as important not only how photograpy was used, but how photography was surrounded by the language and rhetoric of science, I will explore the framework within which photography has been seen to operate in experimental and observational settings ever since Sir John Herschel first used a photograph to explain the result of an experiment in March 1839. The project will involve not only examining the ways in which photographs are seen to generate facts, but how different types of photographs are used to generate different types of facts; how the photochemical trace differs from photographic images made with lenses; how photographic materials alter the way in which experiments and observations are structured; and finally, but certainly not least, how photographic desiderata is treated, discussed, and disseminated to a public audience as evidence.

  • Kelley Wilder, Photography and Science, Reaktion Books, 2008
  • "Invention of Photography", in R. Lenman (ed), Oxford Companion to the Photograph; Oxford, 2005
  • "Fotografie als wissenschaftliche Beobachtung: Arthur von Hippel und Fred Merrills Lichtenbergsche Figuren", in A. Janser, M. Kwint (eds) Einfach komplex - Bildbäume und Baumbilder in der Wissenschaft; Zurich, 2005
  • Kelley Wilder and Martin Kemp, "Proof Positive in Sir John Herschel's Concept of Photography", History of Photography, vol. 26, n. 4, Winter 2002, pp. 358-366.
  • "Photography Absorbed", in Horst Bredekamp, Matthias Bruhn and Gabriele Werner (eds) Bildwelten des Wissens. Kunsthistorisches Jahrbuch für Bildkritik, Bd. 4.2, 'Bilder ohne Betrachter', Berlin: Akademie, 2006
  • "William Henry Fox Talbot und 'The Picture which makes itself'", in Friedrich Weltzien (ed) Von Selbst: Autopoietische Verfahren in der Ästhetik des 19. Jahrhunderts; Berlin: Reimer, 2006, pp. 189-197