This Week In Photography Books – Berenice Abbott

by Jonathan Blaustein

I complicate things sometimes. With my elaborate introductions, I could be accused of stealing the spotlight from the books themselves. With the constant references to self, perhaps I am nothing more than a child of a meta-obsessed generation? Malkovich inside his own head.

If I were kind, though, I might focus on my laurels, like the desire to discuss these books in the context of a lived experience. We share more in common with each other than we don’t, I believe. And yet there are some ideas which cannot be accommodated with others. Some divides seem genuinely unbridgeable.

First on my list would be that gap between extreme religious believers, and the rest of us. Religion, taken to its limits, can be an Operating System. The code, once uploaded, can only work within those sets of instructions. No new information can infect a closed loop.

While Jewish in upbringing and somewhat Buddhist in leanings, I have nothing against the whole endeavor. Whether it’s creation mythology or community building, there is a lot of good in said holywater. But much of the death and destruction we see today is based upon either the nasty intertwining of religion and tribalism, or the inability of ancient beliefs to reconcile with a 21st Century understanding of the world.

Here in the US, we have an almost unbelievable battle waging. On one side lie those who believe that Dinosaur bones are only a few thousand years old, women are subservient to men, and the planet is not warmed by an excess of carbon in the atmosphere. Basically, they don’t believe in science.

The others, myself included, view the continuum of knowledge as a good thing. Physics and genetics and all manner of science wings pursue more and more information, while also admitting how much remains to be learned. It’s absurd and also humbling to believe we used to be Australopithecines, grunting and hirsute.

Is this going anywhere? Does it ever? This week’s book is special, and while I rarely go out and say it, this is probably a book to buy: Berenice Abbott, “Documenting Science” recently published by Steidl. Only in the end notes did I learn that this is the second in a series of books about the artist that Mr. Steidl is producing.

The book begins with a wonderfully written, obviously vintage letter by Ms. Abbott, pertaining directly to her desire to study the eponymous subject. So cool. “The artist through history has been the spokesman and conservator of human spiritual energies and ideas.” Serious intentions lead to serious work.

The photographic plates, made from scans in the Steidl studio, are masterful. (And will definitely suit the tonal range cultists out there.) Different scientific concepts, like Motion, Electricity and Magnetism, and Light and Optics are delineated through a variety of individual examples. Each idea has been rendered as an experiment, or visualization.

It’s terribly clunky in words, I know. That’s part of the point. There’s no magic in the phrase “Conservation of Momentum in Spheres of Unequal Mass.” Yet the photograph those words describe is genius. Kinetic yet Zen.

The book is solid as well as dense. If you read this column, and are a book consumer as well, this is one to consider. I’m not sure what it costs, but you’ll likely return to it again and again for years. As well as it’s built, it ought to resonate down the line, serving as proof that Science is more than just big words and thick glasses and white coats.

Bottom line: A masterpiece

To purchase “Documenting Science” visit Photo-Eye

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 9 Comments On This Article.

  1. Yes! The rich, sultry warmth in every shot quietly showcases how strong these images are.