Story of the eye

Pub date November 25, 2008
WriterErik Morse
SectionArts & CultureSectionVisual Art

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In "Brought to Light: Photography and the Invisible," SFMOMA associate curator of photography Corey Keller assembles an exciting encyclopedia of daguerreotypes, photographs, and X-rays to reconstruct and demonstrate the 19th century education of the eye. Separated into species of work (microscopy, telescopy, electricity and magnetism, motion studies, X-rays, and spiritualism) and sub-sectioned into various flora and fauna, "Brought to Light" has the distinct feel of a fin de siecle terrarium or medical amphitheatre — a suitable mise-en-scene for the subject matter.

By way of prologue, "Brought to Light" details the emergence of the improved optical technologies and positivist sciences — largely indebted to French theorist Auguste Comte — that set the stage for a "Copernican revolution" by the latter half of the 1800s. The resulting impact was first felt in the discipline of astronomy, when detailed images of the moon appeared to an astonished public courtesy of George Phillips Bond and Samuel Humphrey.

Though these lunar photographs proved unprecedented in capturing the collective imagination, the scientific community was quick to shift its classificatory gaze to the molecular universe. Early photomicrographers Alfred Donné and Auguste-Adolphe Bertsch experimented with new chemical exposures to produce startling images of diatoms, insects, and human cells. Eadweard Muybridge and Étienne-Jules Marey ossified high-speed events through stop-action "chronotypes," thereby converting temporal mysteries — such as the arc of a cannonball, or the positioning of a racehorse’s legs in mid-stride — into a visual experience. By century’s end, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen had successfully transmogrified the living human body into a ghostly apparition through his discovery of the X-ray.

So influential was technical culture upon the epistemological discourse of the period that the roving gaze of the scientist had insinuated itself into the collective perception of the laymen. As the astronomer Pierre Jules César Janssen prophetically pronounced in 1877, the photography plate had supplanted human vision to become the "true retina." Always intriguing, "Brought to Light" tells the story of a moment in history when the rational world suddenly plunged into its subterranean counterpart, redefining the story of the eye. *


Through Jan 4, 2009; $7-$12.50

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