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  • Victoria Stokes

Science Photography - Bridging the gap between science and public understanding.

Updated: Mar 27, 2023


 

Photography is the obvious choice of art form to use for science communication not only because of its visual appeal, accuracy, accessibility, and familiarity but also because it has roots in scientific experimentation.


With a desire to capture and reproduce images with precision, early 19th century scientists and inventors worked on ways to capture and record images using light-sensitive materials. This led to the successful development of the daguerreotype and the calotype processes, taking photography into the mainstream.


It was however the pioneering work of Anna Atkins, in the mid-1800s, that truly put photography on the map as a tool for scientific documentation and communication.


Dictyota dichotomy in the young state and in fruit. Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions by Anna Atkins

Atkins, a British botanist, used photography to document and classify plants and went on to publish what is considered to be the first published book of photographs.


"Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions," contained cyanotype images of over 400 species of algae, which Atkins painstakingly created, by placing the algae specimens directly onto coated paper and exposing them to sunlight.


Atkins' work was ground-breaking and set the stage, inspiring other scientists to use photography in their work.







Today, photography has become an essential tool for science communication and is proving, as one of the primary mediums in the SciArt movement, an effective way to engage the public with science.


Science-inspired art or SciArt for short, seeks to bridge the gap between the two subjects. It encourages collaboration and an interdisciplinary approach in creating works that communicate scientific ideas to a broader audience.


By presenting scientific information in a visually compelling and accessible way, photographers can help make complex scientific ideas more understandable and engaging.


Autocumulus undulatus cloud over glacier in svalbard arctic  triangles in landscape
Autocumulus undulatus cloud formation over Fjortende Julibreen Glacier in Spitsbergen, Svalbard © Victoria Stokes

One way that photography is used in the SciArt movement is by capturing and portraying scientific phenomena and concepts.

Photographs can document scientific research and experimentation, as well as showcase the beauty and complexity of scientific ideas.


Scientific subjects such as cloud formations, celestial bodies, animals and natural landscapes can also serve as inspiration for photographers to create works that incorporate scientific themes.



Dissolution, Ocean Acidification © Victoria Stokes

Photography is also used in the SciArt movement to create works that explore the intersection of science and culture. Photographs can be manipulated, staged, or combined with other media to create imaginative and thought-provoking works that comment on scientific issues, challenges our perceptions of the world or provide tangibility to abstract issues.




It is important to note that science photography and scientific imaging are in fact very different. Science imaging typically involves employing the use of specialised equipment such as electron microscopes, telescopes, or x-ray machines to capture images of scientific phenomena . These images are often used for scientific research and are typically highly technical.


Fluvial meandering of Norfolk estuary. © Victoria Stokes

In contrast, science photography involves using traditional photographic techniques to capture images of scientific subjects, such as animals, plants, or landscapes. The advantage of science photography is that it is accessibility to anyone with an interest in both subjects. It does not need to be daunting and can be as simple as sharing a photograph of a rock formation, or celebrating a pattern in nature.



Often, the trickiest part of the process is ensuring your image title and caption is scientifically accurate, which can come down to the strength of your research. It has also been my experience that scientists can sometimes be incredibly accommodating and will take an active interest in ensuring you are conveying accurate information. Especially if it is about their beloved field of study.

Ordovician limestones, Akpatok Island, Nunavut, Canada. © Victoria Stokes

Scientists, whilst experts in their respective fields, will often be the first to admit that science communication is not their forté.


They may lack the training or necessary experience to effectively communicate their research to a broader audience. As a result, may embrace alternative and creative ways to convey their work.


By applying an interdisciplinary approach and embracing the SciArt movement, photographers and their practice can be invaluable for science communication, helping to educate the public and promote scientific literacy.


 



Warmer temperatures can create the perfect conditions for Chlamydomonas nivalis to bloom.

It darkens the snow which absorbs more heat and accelerates melting, creating a feedback loop.

This image was captured on the Antarctic Peninsula in 2020,

in the same week the continent saw multiple record-breaking temperatures.



Recently, I had the honour of being selected as a finalist for the Woman Science Photographer of the year 2023 and attended the awards ceremony which was held, at the Royal Photographic Society on Feb 10th, the UN International Day of Women and Girls in Science.


Despite Anna Atkins' pioneering work in this field, women have been historically underrepresented in both the fields of science and photography. Highlighting why initiatives such as this are so important.


By shining a light on women working at the intersection of art and science, the competition helps to address the gender imbalance and aims to encourages more women to pursue careers in science and photography. It also showcases the important role that photography can play in science communication public engagement with the subject.


The WSPOTY exhibition runs

10th February, 2023 running until 31st March, 2023

at the Royal Photographic Society in Bristol.

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