Once they were revealed to the human eye, certain images and objects have been so powerful that we’ve been fascinated with them ever since we first (really) saw them.
This morning I posted two images of the common housefly. One was from an early photomicrograph, an ~1865 print by Arthur E. Durham. The other was a trompe l’oeil construction by Tom Friedman, made 130 years later. Both Durham and Friedman were fascinated by the tiny made static, by the way the thing revealed itself when it was ‘made’ to hold still. I can relate: When a fly lands on my knee, I stare at it until it flies away. I do the same thing with Friedman’s flies, and at SFMOMA I was similarly fascinated with Durham’s print. How does that bizarre little organism work? How the heck does it see? How does it fly? How is it put together? And just when I figure it out, it flies away. (That is, a real fly does. Part of the fun of the Friedman and the Durham is that I can stare at them as long as I like.)
As SFMOMA’s Brought to Light show revealed, once scientists figured out how to reveal the minute details of minutiae to us by marrying photographic processes to the microscope, we’ve never stopped looking. Artists know this all too well. Perhaps more than anyone but scientists, artists have been fascinated with the natural world.
Take Philip Taaffe, a painter who broke through by mining art history for images that he then re-created in his own language. By the late 1990s Taaffe’s fascination with natural history was in full-force. His paintings from that period include serial images of ferns, conifers and simple sea organisms, all of which are among the oldest continuing species.
The painting above is Taaffe’s 1999 Diadem, which features ’slices’ of plant material and organisms that plainly reference the earliest microphotography. Taaffe even presents Diadem in a way that references photomicrography-filled collages popular at the end of the 19th-century.
At the top of this post is a detail from A. Thouroude’s Collection of microphotographs, from 1890. At the center of the piece (which is made up of albumen and printing-out paper prints mounted on board) is a pleurosigma angulatum, apparently magnified 3000 times. That same organism is the compositional thread that holds together Taaffe’s Diadem. (At least I think it is — I’m no naturalist.) Underneath Taafe’s pleurosigma angulatum are what seem to be dozens of microphotographic ’slides’ of cross sections of plant matter, one of the most popular early photomicrographic subjects. Taaffe’s background ‘color’ even mimics the vaguely yellowed paper of early albumen prints. [At right: A detail from Andreas Ritter von Ettinghausen's 1840 daguerrotype of the cross section of a clematis stem. In the jump you can see a detail from Taaffe's Diadem that shows 'his cross sections' more clearly. Or click here to see a large JPEG of the whole painting.]
Related: SFMOMA’s Brought to Light. Stop-motion photography: Muybridge and Antin. Two flies. Brought to Light is now on view in Vienna at the Albertina, which has a better website for the show than SFMOMA did.