When the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957, the beeping radio signal of this first human-made satellite was heard across the United States with both wonder and fear. America had been beaten into space and seemed to be falling behind in the nuclear arms race. Unless something big was done quickly, the warning sign that we were screwed might be a rocket-delivered mushroom cloud.

A year earlier Massachusetts Institute of Technology professors aiming to improve physics education formed what became the Physical Sciences Study Committee. In Sputnik's wake, the federal government threw money at the project. It produced films, lab materials, and the landmark 1960 text book Physics as it reshaped science education across the US and internationally.

"Berenice Abbott: Photography and Science: An Essential Unity," organized by Julia Van Haaften and Gary Van Zante at the MIT Museum, shows that the book's look — particularly the cover's time-lapse photo of the parabolic arcs followed by a bouncing ball — was due to the project's staff photographer, Abbott.

In the 1920s, the Ohio native was an assistant to famed Surrealist Man Ray in Paris and then launched her own portrait studio, photographing Jean Cocteau, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and James Joyce. In 1929, she moved to New York and spent a decade photographing the modern metropolis.

But beginning with her work as photo editor of Science Illustrated magazine in the 1940s, she pursued her goal of "presenting [science's] realistic subject matter with the same integrity as one portrays the cultural morphology of our civilization and yet endowing this material so strange and unfamiliar to the public with the poetry of its own vast implications."

Her magazine shots can feel dully illustrative — see: hand holding a hammer. Working for the MIT committee from 1958 to '60, she was unleashed. Time-lapse photos of swinging balls resemble solar systems. Rays of light bend through prisms. A parabolic mirror reflects a woman's eye a thousand times. Two circular waves intersect and combine in a ripple tank. (The wave photos were a version of Man Ray's photograms —photosensitive paper was placed underneath the glass tank and directly exposed without any camera.)

Like Aaron Siskind and Harry Callahan, Abbott was inventing abstract photography. She combined Surrealism and a romance with modernity. Though anchored in documenting reality, her images are cosmic, psychedelic, dreamy.


"BERENICE ABBOTT: PHOTOGRAPHY AND SCIENCE: AN ESSENTIAL UNITY" :: MIT Museum :: 265 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge :: Through December 31 :: 617.253.5927 or

  Topics: Museum And Gallery , United States, 1920s, backstory,  More more >
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