Trouvelot’s Natural Art “Brought to Light” at SFMOMA

By LIZ HAGER

trouvelot-figure

Étienne-Léopold Trouvelot, Direct electric spark obtained with a Ruhmkorff coil or Wimshurst machine, also known as “Trouvelot Figure.” photograph, ca. 1888-89 (© Musée des arts et métiers, Conservatoire national des arts et métiers, Paris)

Before its transformation into an art medium, photography dutifully served as a handmaiden to science. Beginning in the mid-19th century, photographers enthusiastically set out to “objectively” record all manner of things, locales, and phenomenon in the natural and man-made worlds. Judging by SFMOMA’s exhibit Brought to Light exhibit (on view until Janurary 4, 2009), the quest to illuminate “invisible” phenomena yielded not just advancements in scientific understanding but most intriguing artistic results.  The images here embrace a scope that ranges from the infinitesimal to the infinite. Amid the numerous insect studies, the microscopic comparison of the structure of snowflakes by Wilson Bentley is a masterpiece of artistic design in its own right. On the other end of the scale, it’s harder to appreciate the novelty of the astronomical images in the show after decades of NASA-driven photography.  For some, the Muybridge motion studies will be a revelation, although regrettably a few of the less interesting ones involving naked women struggle to rise above the level of Victorian-era titillation.

The number of singular gems overshadows the few weaker pieces. The several “Trouvelot figures” similar to the one above are still capable some 150 years later of eliciting a breathy “wow,” even in the face of our technically-sophisticated modern imaging techniques. Though reviled for his introduction of the dredded gypsy moth into the United States, and better known artistically for his telescopic drawings of celestial bodies, Étienne-Léopold Trouvelot also used photography to illuminate the invisible world of electricity. In this endeavor he excelled, achieving stunning otherworldly results.

Strictly speaking, Trouvelot wasn’t innovating, but using photography to recreate an electrical phenomenon already discovered a century before. In 1778 German satirist and scientist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg conducted a seminal experiment, in which he found that a rapid electric discharge over a non-conducting plate caused the powder on the plate to be arranged in unusual patterns with different characteristics depending on the type of charge. Lichtenberg found that by pressing blank sheets of paper onto these pattens, he was able to transfer and record these images (thus discovering the basic principle of modern xerography). These “patterns” are still referred to as “Lichtenberg figures.” Like snowflakes, each figure displays a unique pattern.

In the late 1880s, Trouvelot found that substituting a photographic plate (emulsion side in contact with an electrode) for Lichtenberg’s insulating plate allowed him to produce “Lichtenberg figures” on the developed photograph. Thus, these photographs of his became known as “Trouvelot figures.”

Modern day applications of this technique abound—

For anyone interested in the history of photography, Brought to Light is an invaluable introduction to many photographers not generally covered in the usual surveys. For those with less scholarly interests, the show is simply a reminder that nature often has no artistic equal.

Wider Connections

Bean Gilsdorf— “The Eye of Science”
Trouvelot on the American Silk Worm
NYPL exhibit
Owl’s Cabinet of Wonders—”Heavenly Visions” post
Georg Christoph Lichtenberg—Waste Books

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