Selection of twelve images; Edition 31/60
Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) was one of the great photographers of the twentieth century. After mastering the art of portraiture in the 1920s in Paris and documenting the changing landscape of New York City in the 1930s, she turned her attention to scientific subject matter, which she described as “the most thrilling” of her era. Abbott believed in the potential of her medium to make the seemingly mysterious accessible. In 1939, she set forth a manifesto declaring the need for “a friendly interpreter between science and the layman,” a calling that would define her artistic trajectory for the next two decades.
The photographs on view were taken during Abbott’s work with the Physical Science Study Committee (PSSC) at MIT to illustrate a new physics textbook. Phenomena such as acceleration due to gravity, wave interference, and magnetism are not only accurately represented but also give definitive form to abstract concepts such as energy conservation and the inexorable increase of disorder (entropy). Each starkly beautiful image draws on Abbott’s mastery of lighting, composition, and timing to bring the underlying physics into focus, while simultaneously creating a visual poetry of arcs, staccato imprints, and subtly varied patterns. As a result, Abbott helped inspire a generation of scientists and left behind iconic images that still influence physics education today.
-Spencer Smith, Guest Curator and Assistant Professor of Physics, Mount Holyoke College
Beautiful Physics: Photographs by Berenice Abbott (August 19-December 17, 2017)
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