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The Power of Pictures
Friday, October 4, 2013 to Monday, December 16, 2013

Scientific Illustration

     Pictures not only give substance to imagined worlds, they assist scientists in describing and manipulating the world around us. The Italian artist, sculptor, architect, and author Francesco de Giorgio Martini built more than 130 military fortresses. He described his site plans, mechanical designs, and construction techniques in Trattati di archittetura ingegneria e arte militare (Treatise on Architecture, Engineering and the Military Arts), a work that circulated in manuscript in the late 15th century. In Yale’s copy, which dates from the beginning of the 16th century, the outer and lower margins of nearly every page are filled with drawings for fortresses, temples, churches and theaters, palaces, aqueducts, instruments of war, and machines to improve domestic life.

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     First published in Paris in 1642, Jean Dubreuil’s La perspective pratique became one of Western Europe’s most popular guides to accurately representing three dimensions on a two-dimensional surface. Shown here is the first English edition, published in London in 1672; it was one of seven editions published in French and English in the 17th century. 150 full-page plates provide simple geometrical exercises for rendering columns, entablatures and room interiors, as well as curved surfaces such as casement arches, spiral staircases, and groin-vault ceilings. Similar lessons follow for smaller objects—beds, chairs, swinging cupboard doors—in addition to shadows and human figures.

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     San Francisco photographer Carleton Watkins did not set out to become a scientific illustrator. His earliest mammoth-plate views of the Yosemite Valley were primarily aesthetic records of a little-known region of surpassing beauty. But scientists such as Josiah Whitney, the chief of the California Geological Survey, and Clarence King, the first director of the United States Geological Survey, saw photography as a means of documenting the assertions they made about Western landforms and of spurring public support for exploring the remote parts of the West. They hired Watkins to accompany their expeditions and assured him a national audience.

     Ironically, Watkins’s photographs, Half Dome, 5000 ft. From Glacier Point, (San Francisco, ca. 1878-1881) and Cathedral Spires, Yosemite (San Francisco, ca. 1865), express a grandeur that undermines any effort to reduce them to mere illustrations

The Challenge of Motion

     As Goethe recognized, drawings and paintings captured a moment in time but struggled to represent motion. Euclid, Newton and others had identified the principles of animation, of making a sequence of single images present the illusion of motion, but it was not until the 1830s that a practical solution was discovered. The phenakistiscope consisted of two discs. One contained a series of images depicting sequential phases of movement of an object. The second disc had radial slots through which one observed the first disc. When the illustrated disc was set in motion, a viewer was presented with the appearance of continuous motion. Developed simultaneously in 1832 by Belgian physicist Joseph Plateau and Austrian mathematician Simon von Stampfer, the device was widely copied.

     Englishman Eadweard Muybridge immigrated to the United States as a young man but first came to prominence in San Francisco in 1868 when he published a series of large-format photographs of the Yosemite Valley. In the 1880s Muybridge relocated to the University of Pennsylvania where he developed systems for using multiple cameras to record motion through a rapid sequence of stop action exposures. His Animal Locomotion: An Electro-Photographic investigation of consecutive phases of animal movements (Philadelphia, 1887) captured information that the human eye could not distinguish in real time. Muybridge developed an enhanced “magic disk” that put his stop-action pictures in motion. While it was not a commercial success, it is said to have inspired Thomas Edison and William Dickson’s Kinetoscope, the forerunner of modern cinema.

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