Galeries Les Douches, 5 rue Legouvé, 75010 Paris, Tel : 00 33 (0) 1 78 94 03 00
September 22 - November 22, 2012

Science   BERENICE ABBOTT – Documenting science


Curator : Françoise Docquiert

Since its beginnings in 1839, photography has been a rich, potential source of inspiration for scientists. We can see what’s invisible – from the infinitely teeny to the infinitely huge –because of it, at the beginning of the 20th century, the avant-garde grabbed this scientific iconography, reworked it and adapted it to their own artistic needs. Photography’s keen appeal is as strong as ever and continues to gain momentum.

We have never held a show in the gallery with scientific overtones, so we are more than pleased to exhibit the photography of both Berenice Abbott and Raphaël Dallaporta. Although both working in different areas – fundamental physical mechanisms for one and anatomical parts for the other – the rigorous composition of each image puts both photographers on the same creative line of expression. Beyond their obvious visual force and affect, both bodies of work explore in a forthright manner a new universe, devoid of anecdotes and aestheticism. Thanks to their varying levels of interpretation, these photographs require us to ask questions about our own understanding of the world around us.


Berenice Abbott, Documenting Science

« We live in a world made by science. But we – the millions of laymen – do not understand or appreciate the knowledge which thus controls daily life. » Letter from Berenice Abbott to Charles C. Adams, New York City, April 24, 1939. In 1939 Berenice Abbott started to want to make photographs of scientific phenomena. She experimented making photographs of magnetic fields, soap bubbles, and wave patterns. All of these photographs illustrate the reality and order of their subject consistent with the artist’svision.

Abbott had no formal training in any scientific discipline, but she was endowed with an inquiring mind, a prophetic sense and the perseverance with which to push into the largely unexplored field of scientific photography. She bought secondhand texts on physics and electricity and though she lacked the background to understand them fully she saw how poor most scientific photographs were. Abbott’s ideas about science and photography sounded good ; they looked good on paper but they met with no response. On October 4, 1957, an event occured that to Abbott’s mind saved her life : she saw a newspaper headline announcing the sucessful launching of Sputnik on that day by the USSR. According to the article that followed, the Societ success indicated that the United States was falling behind in science, and she remembers thinking, « I wonder if anyone would be interested in scientific photographs now ? » She did not have to wonder very long.

In February, 1958, she talked with Dr. E. P. Little of the Physical Science Study Committee directly. Her passion to convey the world of science through her art was resolute and culminated in her work for this group at MIT in 1958. PSSC was created to reformulate the way science was taught in American high schools. Abbott’s photographic illustrations fundamentally changed the way thousands of students visualized some of the principles of physics.

In this day of digital cameras and computer-generated imagery, it is difficult to realize the enormity of her work. First, she had to learn and understand the fundamental idea that needed illustration. Then she needed to envision the photograph required to capture that concept, devise the equipment and lighting to make the photograph, load and unload sheet film in a bulky view camera, develop the negative, and finally make a print that was as true to the science as it was to her aestheticism.

By 1961, « The Image of Physics », a touring exhibition by the Smithsonian Institution Exhibition Service (SITES) effectively achieved the photographer’s goal of bringing scientific explanation to a mass audience, offering many Americans their first experience of viewing original fine art photography.

Into the 1980s, the PSSC curriculum’s practical labs and memorable photographs conveyed modern physics and principles of science methodology indelibly to a generation and more of American high school students – fulfilling Abbott’s quest to « understand or appreciate the knowledge which thus controls daily life ».

Raphaël Dallaporta, Fragile

Raphaël Dallaporta’s photography requires hard concentration along with a certain familiarity.

The viewer understands that apparently unrelated rationales inherent in series like

Antipersonnel, Domestic Slavery, Ruins, or Fragile connect in the end with a common line of

thinking and introspection.

Indeed, the presence of the human, captured and seen for itself, haunts the universe of this artist.

The human element is not simply a convenient accessory for documentary photography ; it’s

also one of the recurring features of Dallaporta’s work. Each image hidden behind a certain

conceptualisation reveals a strong humanity. His work functions as a kind of guarantor of the

real. If photographing for him is putting a subject aside, disassociating it from its context, he

does so to make the viewer react. His body of work, instead of manipulating the real, exposes

all of its vulnerable fragility.

Fragile returns to the issue of antipersonnel mines – subjects connected to humans and their

deviations but presented out of context, in their actual size on a black background. Fragile is

directly linked to the human body with its accidents in life and death. Domestic accidents,

homicides, sudden deaths, overdoses, suicides, death in undetermined circumstances – all these

human parts displayed like hard to recognize cuts of butcher meat. These disquieting images

raise more questions for us than any pictures of war and conflict.

And this is the profound force of Raphaël Dallaporta : knowing how to transcend an ordinary

subject and transform it into a reflection on the poetic possibilities of photography. In the series

Fragile the first viewing can be unbearable. Dallaporta shows the inevitable imperatives of

reality – especially those concerning our own death in a context defined by a terrifying, inflicted

accident – in order to project it into a more aesthetic, philosphical realm. This is a body of work,

coherent and complete, that exposes itself, leading the viewer towards a contemplative stance

and a gazing inwards. Yet, the work is objective and doesn’t connect the displayed images to

any point in time.

The viewer, nonetheless, quickly understands that each of these prints, displayed like an

anatomical plate, has a specific, terrifying story attached to it. In most of these images, natural

death doesn’t exist ; rather death comes from an accident, a murder, or drama. There are two

exceptions to the irreality of these photographs – Suicide, a torso of a man whose chest is framed

by the camera and where the viewer slowly notices a mouth, almost peaceful, and a fragment of

the face. And the Four Humors in large scale format, Saturn’s rings or ellipses in space, a

reference to Hippocrates, and yet directly linked to human nature.

Each series is a long, collaborative work including specialists in the field. As for the Fragile,

Raphaël Dallaporta regularly worked with a team of doctors and consultants in the departments

of pathological anatomy and legal medecine at the Raymond Poincaré Hospital for over five

years. This work is so unique that it enables a better understanding of the body’s fragility. It

allows the viewer to see the vulnerability from the inside and to think about the nature and

power of such photography. Raphaël Dallaporta gets as close to his subject as possible and yet

manages to create a distance so that the emerging, latent image dominates what the viewer sees.

The print wants to see and to make seen human organs separate and separated from the body

and its mortality, stripped of the usual romanticism, in order to explore their universe as if

discovering a still virgin world.


This body of work also seeks to reveal the unexpected but fascinating relationship between

human body parts, made objective and yet mysteriously transformed by Dallaporta’s vision, and

exploration of a new system of seeing stretched to the limits to an almost formal abstractionism.

Even more than the preceding series, Fragile divulges the concerns of the photographer.

Attentive, serious, and open he seems to roam about, salvaging the ambiguities and absurdities

of our contemporary world. And yet, he has often recorded everything that belongs to the

unspoken or to the refusal even to see. For if his images seems outside of familiar contexts, they

decompose the distress and solitude of the human predicament deceived by the system and close

friends and/or family. They recount better than anyone what we hide ; they isolate and frame a

situation not through stylistic voyeurism, but rather by a certain ability to identify – a trait innate

to original talent and curious minds.

So, in spite of the apparent, almost clinical rigour, and in any case rigorous in both his

photographic compositions and in his refusal of the anecdotal, each of these photographs

through the emotional content, almost comparable to a powerful shock, triggers our imagination

and sends us back to our own humanity.

Thus is the challenge for us to reflect and consider these pictures, so fragile, as food for thought,

and as revelatory of the human experience.

Françoise Docquiert.

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