Chitra Ramalingham - The Laboratory As Camera: Experiment and the Photographic Archive of Victorian Science
The history of early photography and its relation to science was until recently the history of a handful of famous, beautiful images: photographs seemingly at home on the gallery wall as much as in the laboratories in which they were made. As historical scholarship has moved productively toward an understanding of science as visual culture (rather than considering science in relation to visual culture), we are beginning to understand how deeply embedded photography has been, from its inception, into the day to day practices of science. Through examples from To See a Spark, my forthcoming book on the electric spark as a scientific and aesthetic object in Victorian Britain, this paper argues that understanding photography’s role in the visual and material culture of Victorian physics can bring more historical specificity to our understanding of nineteenth-century "ways of seeing". Furthermore, by recasting physics laboratories and other scientific sites as photographic archives, we can begin to reframe the history of photography from within the cultural history of science, revealing problematic assumptions behind our standard big-picture narratives about both science and photography in the nineteenth century.