Making Science Visible: The Photography of Berenice Abbott

Hannah star Rogers

Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) was a photographer and documentarian whose work ranged from architectural photographs of New York for the Works Progress Administration project (Abbott & McCausland, 1973; Abbott & Hall, 1968; Kurtz et al., 2012), to portraits of men working in rural Maine, to images of science. Abbott’s science images are less well known in art and documentary circles than her documentaries Changing New York and A Portrait of Maine, but the science images offer art historians a chance to see the body of Abbott’s work afresh; this is an opportunity to consider the contributions of artists to scientific knowledge communities. Furthermore, her insistence on attempting to create images that communicated specific scientific ideas put her at odds with the artists of the day whose pictorial approach she opposed. In particular, Abbott’s political project, one of the democratization of scientific knowledge, translated into specific features in the images which were then made public and employed in the classroom.

Abbott was born in Ohio in 1898 and initially planned to study journalism. She trained in New York as a sculptor, and left for Europe in 1921. In Paris, she became Man Ray’s photographic assistant. There, she saw Eugène Atget’s photographs. Later she was credited with solidifying Atget’s legacy by reproducing his work from negatives. In 1929, Abbott returned to New York and directed the social documentary Changing New York for the Federal Art Project (Abbott et al., 2012; Ware, 2004: 2-3; Sullivan, 2006: 122).

Though her initial forays into science did not meet with opportunities to work in either the art or science worlds, Abbott would eventually hold several science publication positions: she was the photo editor of Science Illustrated and the photographer for a major physics textbook. In 1956, the Physical Science Study Committee (PSSC) began studying and revising the physics curricula across the United States. National Science Foundation funding made it possible to create a variety of new teaching materials including films, curriculum for various physics topics, and the textbook, Physics, which was designed to encourage excitement and interest in the subject rather than emphasizing memorization. The project benefited from being organized directly before Sputnik, so that the PSSC was well positioned to take advantage of the upswing in federal interest in physics (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2012). Abbott described later that in 1958 she got a ‘break’ since, as she put it, after Sputnik she thought ‘Well now these people might think a little differently’.

Abbott’s photograph of a bouncing ball used to depict gravity appeared on the cover. As Abbott explained: ‘The science made its own design, but just patterns and just beautiful design wasn’t it at all. The principle had to come through first and foremost’ (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2012). Abbott describes the collaborative nature of science and the process of creating these images by working in large teams to photograph the bouncing balls, which required separate coordination of the dropping object, camera, and lighting. The collaborative nature of this ‘big’ photography agreed with Abbott and she called her time working on these photographs as ‘the happiest years of my life’ (Abbott & Mitchell, 1979).

56.1988 Berenice Abbott, Soap Bubbles, 1945

For Abbott, photography was crucial to science but she believed a specific branch of photography was needed to create the required images. Her science manifesto explains, ‘Photography fits in with the speed of our time… It is a realistic medium appropriate to a realistic and scientific age’. This photograph (Fig. 1) was reproduced in Science Illustrated in July 1946 to illustrate the article ‘Suds in Action’, which explained the mechanism by which soap works. The article, like many short pieces in the publication, was aimed at familiarizing readers with the details of scientific process with which they might already have some familiarity. This piece discusses washing and appears along with an article on synthetic fabrics, suggesting that the publication hoped to reach an audience beyond other publications founded in this period, which were aimed at boys and young men. Abbott’s images not only depicted scientific subjects, but were specifically prepared for scientific contexts.

Soap Bubbles (Abbott, 1945) demonstrates the geometry of soap bubbles, and when published in Science Illustrated it was accompanied by a text explaining the molecular differences between hard and soft water. Abbott said that the image required repeated experiments with soap types to capture this image, which is one of her most reproduced and frequently copied science images. It appeared in Science Illustrated in an article about soap bubbles which explains that bubbles (or suds, as the article sometimes calls them) are more readily formed in soft water than hard because hard water contains calcium and magnetism which interfere with bubble formation by interrupting the action of soap. Soaps contain polar and nonpolar molecules which act as a bridge to bound water to lipids (for example, fat or grease). One can see how this ‘everyday’ science communication was meant to work for Abbott: she hoped that by making science familiar to the public, they would be increasingly interested in supporting scientific inquiry.

Abbott was also an inventor who held a number of patents for photography-related inventions. In particular, she devised a new type of camera called the Supersight camera (Abbott, 1945-1946). This camera was the opposite of a camera obscura. In a camera obscura the world passes through a tiny slit and is projected (either to be traced on paper, or onto film). Abbott’s Supersight camera works precisely the opposite way: a small field comes through the camera and is projected very large directly onto film, producing a detailed grain free image. The photograph of soap bubbles was created through this process (Abbott, 1945).

Abbott-beetle-1    Abbott-bug-2

B. Abbott, Japanese Beetle in Grant, C. & Cady, H. (1948) American High School Biology. New York: Harper. B. Abbott, Untitled (Big Bug), (n.d.).

In the science textbook American High School Biology, a Japanese Beetle (Popillia japonica) has turned a leaf into a lattice work of veins (Fig. 2). The American High School Biology (Grant & Cady, 1948) took the unusual step of visibly crediting Abbott with each photograph as ‘Miss Berenice Abbott’. This biology textbook introduces ideas we now associate with ecology: individual organisms are pictured with other organisms and their relationships are the focus of the text. Of particular interest are agricultural ‘pests’, pictured with the plants they consume. Rather than showing the insect in isolation, viewers are encouraged to think of the effects of the Japanese Beetle since the background of the image is formed by the leftovers from a leaf meal.

The contrast of this image’s relational aspects is made starker when compared to Abbott’s large format insect image Untitled of the Giant Water Bug, genus Lethocerus (Fig. 3). Images in science textbooks need to be constructed to fit both into current scientific culture and to demonstrate the specific features that scientists are trying to convey. The problem for the photographer, then, is how to encourage the viewer to notice those aspects of the image that match scientific purposes. Abbott has removed all context through careful lighting that minimizes the visibility of any shadows cast by the subject. Yet the framing and orientation give the strong impression that the insect is large. This representation is more typical of the isolated single organism that is conventional in natural history documentation, though some commentators have suggested that Abbott’s framing of the giant water bug exaggerates its size. The contrast serves to underscore Abbott’s contribution to new ways of creating images to show biological relationships.


B. Abbott, Light Through Prism (1958-1961a), Cambridge.

Abbott explained her motivation in the following terms: ‘The idea was to interpret science sensibly, with good proportion, good balance, and good lighting, so we could understand it’. Many photographers and other scientific image-makers are the heirs to the new ideas for science photography Abbott proposed. Prisms, which split light into its composite colors but separating wavelengths (dispersion), are familiar subjects for optics photographs, but in Light through Prism (Abbott, 1958-1961a), we encounter a different kind of prism made to show refraction and reflection (Fig. 4). We are viewing Abbott’s careful set-up from the top. She describes arranging two glass triangles with water between them (without air) held together by cohesive force. The separate beams of light enter the prism at a variety of angles.

In the first three beams viewers can actually see refraction displacing the light slightly, the way a bent straw in water would look. By the time we reach the latter three beams, however, the angle of their entry causes the beams to reflect off the right triangle wall crossing through the upper part of the triangle. The beams are reinforced as they cross so spots of brighter light are produced. Abbott reminds us of the particle and wave nature of light beams by producing an image which shows the beams of light as smooth when inside the prism but discrete when outside of it (Weissman, 2011). Terri Weissman has proposed the term ‘photodiagrams’ to describe these illustrations through photographs, which do not show the phenomenon itself but rather purport to offer a way to understand, say, the wave and particle nature of light, using another material. For Abbott these are not simply attractive designs abstracted from phenomena but first of all proof and demonstration of science ideas through photography.

Abbott specifically described this optics image in terms of the staging required to create the photograph: ‘Multiple beams of light from a source change direction when they go into a glass plate and when they emerge. Some waves are reflected inside the glass and then escape. The prism photograph was done very carefully. The prism was filled with water and not one drop of air was inside. The box that held the light source was specially designed and purposely looks as it does to make for a better composition’. This iconic image has been repeated in many forms and is an affirmation of Abbott’s goal of conveying a specific scientific sensibility (1958-1961b).

Abbott required scientific and technical expertise to create this highly staged realist mode. Artists and image-makers are too often considered to be outside of science, even when their contributions enable instrument design and data visualization as well as science communication and critique (Weissman, 2011; Kurtz et al., 2012). Abbott’s relationship to science offers a chance to see the entanglements of art and science. Her images do more than document a historical moment in science: they materially contribute to pedagogical practice and, in particular, the expansion of physics at a particular moment in science history. They do not just illustrate or draw attention to science. The visual language of these photographs helps us experience and observe scientific processes from the consequences of the laws of physics to contrasting visions of the biological world.

Abbot understood her realist aspirations for photography as contrasting with the efforts of her peers, such as Alfred Stieglitz. She described work by the likes of Stieglitz as ‘art… by the few for the few’. In this way, Abbott rhetorically aligns Stieglitz in opposition to her work. In 1941, she wrote A Guide to Better Photography (Abbott), in which she critiqued pictorialist photographers. According to her, what was in front of the camera was of secondary importance for these photographers who selected subjects primarily to showcase and experiment with photographic processes. Abbott critiqued what she saw as a display of dark room techniques over subject matter. For her, ‘photography is for communicating the realities of life’. Her highly staged images emphasize Abbott’s interest in what was in front of the camera, rather than processing techniques. In the case of scientific images, this meant making the ideas of science broadly available. Abbott attempted to communicate, and thereby democratize, what she saw as the power of her time, science, and to encourage engagement with science. To accomplish this, Abbott created images which speak to knowledge communities in both art and science.


Research for this article was completed during preparation for ‘Making Science Visible: The Photography of Berenice Abbott’ at the Fralin Museum of Art, which was co-curated by Worthy Martin. The author wishes to acknowledge the museum staff, including Director Bruce Boucher, Nicole Wade, Ana Marie Liddell, Aimee Hunt, and Jean Lancaster.


Abbott, B. & Hall, C. (1968) A Portrait of Maine. New York: Macmillan.

Abbott, B. & McCausland, E. (1973) New York in the Thirties (formerly titled: Changing New York). New York: Dover Publications.

Abbott, B. & Mitchell, M. (1979) Recollections: Ten Women of Photography. New York: Viking.

Abbott, B. (1941) A Guide to Better Photography. New York: Crown Publishers.

Abbott, B. (1945) Soap Bubbles.

Abbott, B. (1945-1946) Supersight Eye.

Abbott, B. (1958-1961a) Light Through Prism. Cambridge.

Abbott, B. (1958-1961b) Parabolic Mirror. Cambridge.

Abbott, B. et al. (2012) Berenice Abbott: Paris Portraits, 1925-1930. Göttingen: Steidl.

Grant, C. & Cady, H. (1948) American High School Biology. New York: Harper.

Kurtz, R. et al. (2012) Documenting Science. Göttingen: Steidl.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2012) Science and Photography: An Essential Unity. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Sullivan, G. (2006) Berenice Abbott, Photographer: An Independent Vision. New York: Clarion Books.

Ware, S. (2004) Notable American Women. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Weissman, T. (2011) The Realisms of Berenice Abbott: Documentary Photography and Political Action. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hannah Star Rogers holds a Ph.D. in Science & Technology Studies from Cornell University and teaches writing at Columbia University. Her research on the intersection of art and science explores how these categories circumscribe bodies of knowledge. Her objects of analysis have included the Blaschka glass marine models, tactical media, and bioart. In 2012 she curated the exhibit ‘Making Science Visible: The Photography of Berenice Abbott’ at the Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia.



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