Photography, science, spiritualism collide at JMKAC

Ask Alison Ferris about the purpose and power of photography, and the curator for the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan may come off sounding more professorial than poetic. 

But Ferris’ tone is very appropriate for two new arts center exhibitions — one pending, the other already on display — that illustrate a juxtaposition between the camera’s use as a scientific tool and photography’s evolution as an artistic medium.

Photography and the Scientific Spirit, opening on Oct. 30, focuses on 72 images from 17 photographers that illustrate scientific methods in artistic ways. The exhibition is one of a four-part series that operates under the tagline, “Life Lit Up: Science and Self as Seen through the Lens in Four Exhibitions.” 

Seeing is Believing: Photographs from the Collection of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a smaller exhibit that opened on Oct. 11, offers a series of 15 images from the Sherlock Holmes creator’s personal archive. The images, from the early 20th century, purportedly prove the authenticity of ghosts and visitations and are from a time when public interest in spiritualism was at its height, making it uniquely appropriate for the Halloween season.

WiG caught up with Ferris to find out more about Photography and the Scientific Spirit and Seeing is Believing.

How did Photography and the Scientific Spirit come about? Does its title have a specific meaning? I started noticing that a number of contemporary photographers were creating very compelling images incorporating science. When I started researching, I just kept coming across more photographers working this way.

The title was inspired by a quote from Walt Whitman: “I like the scientific spirit — the holding off, the being sure but not too sure, the willingness to surrender ideas when the evidence is against them: this is ultimately fine — it always keeps the way beyond open — always gives life, thought, affection, the whole man, a chance to try over again after a mistake — after a wrong guess.” 

How do science and photography — and for that matter art overall — intersect? When the camera was invented in the 19th century, it was believed to be a machine that, in part, produced an empirical form of pictorial representation for scientists. The use of photographs, they thought, eliminated problematic human interference in sciences that required objectivity. Whereas earlier pictures such as drawings or paintings were believed to be willed into existence, photographs were understood as just the opposite, obtained or taken like natural specimens found in the wilderness.

The creative process manifests in science and art in the same way. The scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer wrote, “scientists live always at the edge of mystery.” So too, of course, do artists. Both artists and scientists thrive in the state of the unknown because it is from there that the idea or the form originates.

How many photographers and their works were considered for the exhibition? I don’t honestly have numbers, but I can say that I looked at a lot of work before making the final selections for the exhibition. The selected works characterize invention and imagination as it relates to science and art — and that’s a lot of territory to cover in an image! 

All the photographs in the exhibition are contemporary and most have been made in the last 10 years. The show opens with a selection of Berenice Abbott’s scientific photographs from the 1940s to 1960s. She was a pioneer of sorts in using photography to illustrate scientific phenomena. Many of the photographers in the exhibition cite Abbott’s work as informing their own.

Is there a connective thread, either visually or conceptually, that runs throughout the exhibition? The artists express the relationship between science and photography in a number of different manners. For some, the artists themselves take on the role of scientist — indeed a number of the artists studied science or are practicing scientists in addition to being photographers. They perform creative scientific experiments and capture them using photography. 

Caleb Charland expands upon a classic grade school science project: the potato battery, creating electrical current by inserting a galvanized nail into one side of a piece of potato and a copper wire in the other side. In one work, Charland electrifies a chandelier hanging in apple trees using the power of the fruit. In another, he lights a floor lamp in a field by using the potatoes growing underground.

David Goldes’s images are inspired by his research into pre-photographic 19th century drawings of electrical experiments performed by scientists such as Humphrey Davy and Michael Faraday. Goldes’s photographs explore electrical experiments of his own invention that use simple household objects. 

Other artists work directly with scientists and make art in response to their discoveries. For example, Rachel Sussman’s series is the result of research and work with biologists, and travel in remote parts of the world to find and photograph objects as The Oldest Living Things in the World — her series title — explains.

A number of artists invent or alter photography’s chemical or mechanical processes and even build cameras, as in the case of Chris McCaw. McCaw’s hand-built, large-format cameras are outfitted with powerful lenses typically used for military surveillance and aerial reconnaissance. Instead of film, McCaw inserts expired vintage, fiber-based gelatin silver photo paper directly into the camera. 

Pointing the lens at the sun, McCaw exposes the paper for periods of time ranging from 15 minutes to 24 hours. Such long exposures intensely magnify the sun’s rays, which literally burn through the surface of the paper, thus making tangible, in scored markings, the trajectory of the earth’s orbit around the sun.

What aspects of the exhibition may be most surprising to viewers? Perhaps what will be most surprising is how visually stunning the works in the exhibition are! I hope that viewers leave thinking about how both art and science are creative enterprises.

What can you tell us about Seeing is Believing? I also curated that smaller exhibition, which features spirit photography. There’s an interesting connection between the two exhibitions because spiritualists viewed the camera as an objective scientific tool that could produce evidence of the spirit world. 

A description of the exhibit notes that the images are from the collection of the famous British author Arthur Conan Doyle, now held at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. In this selection, viewers will see disembodied heads hovering in the air above photographic subjects or glowing on the sleeves of the sitters’ jackets. In even more unusual photographs, we see “evidence” of ectoplasm produced by a female medium. 

Ultimately, this exhibition shows that it was not simply faith in the veracity of the scientific photographic process that led to the kinds of credulity spirit photography enjoyed; it was a desire to believe in the existence of ghosts. Doyle, a committed spiritualist in the early 20th century, amassed hundreds of these photographs, which he believed substantiated the existence of the afterlife. 


Photography and the Scientific Spirit runs Oct. 30 – Feb. 21 at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, 608 New York Ave., Sheboygan. The concurrent exhibition, Seeing is Believing: Photographs from the Collection of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, runs through Jan. 17 at the same location. Visit or call 920-458-6144 for more details.

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