In her compelling and classic book On Photography, Susan Sontag raises the bar on the discussion of the intersection of science and art in drawing a direct relation to philosophical intent and technique: “Some photographers set up as scientists, others as moralists. The scientists make an inventory of the world; the moralists concentrate on hard cases” (1977, p. 59). She relates the example of German portraitist and documentary photographer August Sander as the quintessential photographer-as-scientist, whose revelations of social archetypes through photography were perceived as uncontrived, objective, and seamless with reality itself.
This intent of scientism is said to be missing in the work of most American photographers, whose cultural landscape could not allow for a stable experience of nature, time, or events–thrusting the photographer into the realm of capturing a transitory state and, ironically, intensifying its fleetingness by the very act of photographing it. This chaos often translates into a harrowing beauty that appears too idiosyncratic to be pre-planned. However, Sontag argues that the grotesque specificity emanating from a photographic subject speaks more of the photographer’s individual preference for a single, biased, and therefore unscientific element of reality. As in the case of Diane Arbus, whose death by suicide 40 years ago was recently commemorated in an article in The Guardian, an obsession with freaks, deviants, and general human disturbance that at one time appeared hyper-realistic (to the point of being surreal) at the tragic end of her career seemed quite internally produced and personal.
Human organization and understanding of the outside world is an issue that has been heavily addressed by cognitive and social psychologists. Since the introduction of the concept of “schemas” by Frederic Bartlett in 1932, research has continuously shown perception and memory to be more influenced by categories constructed in the past than by any creative or accurate interpretation of the present. People incorporate new pieces of information within existing frameworks of understanding. This cognitive bias lends itself to a positive stability of self and mind, but conversely enables negative pre-categorizations such as stereotypes.
In his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, historian and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn uses the similar concept of “paradigms” to deconstruct the notion of complete objectivity in the sciences. Kuhn describes “normal science,” or the science that is regularly carried out by scientists in their everyday work, as a practice that suppresses novelty and assumes the fundamental structure of the way the world works as one that is already understood. In order for true scientific progress to be made, a “paradigm shift” must completely overthrow the schema previously used to organize a vast amount of information about reality (which in the absence of a paradigm would seem overwhelming and equally relevant to all other pieces of information). Authentic understanding and progress, even in the “hardest” disciplines of science, therefore relies not on replication of results and procedures but on the destruction and creation of the theoretical underpinnings on which scientific research rests.
Thomas Kuhn presents the inverse of Susan Sontag’s photographer-as-scientist in his description of the scientist-as-artist. He incisively states: “Like artists, creative scientists must occasionally be able to live in a world out of joint–elsewhere I have described that necessity as the ‘essential tension’ implicit in scientific research” (1996, p. 79). Based on this implication of chaos and tension as fundamental to discovering new pieces of the puzzle of science, it is difficult to determine whether Sontag’s ideal “photographer-as-scientist” should be considered the dutiful and thorough portraitist August Sander or the dark, subjective, boundary-pushing Diane Arbus. After all, Arbus, in her articulation of a haunting pre-suicidal subjectivity, produced a paradigm shift from the conceptualization of “photograph as reality” to “photograph as art” and thus helped legitimize an entire medium of expression. Kuhn de-legitimized the understanding of science as implicitly including objective reality, leaving room for theory to de-stabilize rituals of practice and produce authentic innovation–something that is certainly prized in both artistic and scientific communities alike.
Bartlett, F.C. (1932). Remembering: A study in experimental and social psychology. Cambridge, U.K.:Cambridge University Press.
Kuhn, T.S. (1996). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Sontag, S. (1977). On photography. New York: Picador.
Image Credits: ‘Science Eye’: Alfredo Octavio, Barbara Katz.