April 30, 2021

Credit: Leland Stanford / Library of Congress

*This piece was originally published on January 22nd, 2021*

From Mathew Brady’s Civil War photographs, to some of the first images of Earth in space, photography has shaped the way we see ourselves. Which means that when photographic technology changes and progresses, it can really shift our self-image. Ainissa Ramirez is a scientist and the author of The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another, and she was previously on Innovation Hub to talk about how materials science altered the way we think about time. Now, she tells the fascinating story of how people shaped photographs and how those photographs then shaped us. And that story begins with an incredibly rich man betting on horses.

Three Takeaways:

  • Yes, one of the biggest leaps in photographic technology came from a bet. Leland Stanford - an extremely wealthy industrialist and Stanford University’s founder - bet his rich friends that at some point, mid-gallop, all four hooves of a horse were simultaneously off the ground. To get proof of this phenomenon, Stanford turned to photographer Eadweard Muybridge. The problem was, in the 1800s, photographic technology wasn’t up to the task of taking action shots. So, Muybridge put 24 separate cameras in a row that would snap when the horse crossed a string, in order to capture the phenomenon. Turns out, horses' hooves do all leave the ground when they’re galloping. And both our understanding of horses, and motion photography, was revolutionized.
  • Photographic technology hasn’t just changed the way we see horse motion; sometimes it’s had a more troubling impact. Ramirez points out that as color photography became more commonplace in the 20th century, the film seemed to be able to pick out lighter skin better than darker skin. This was because color photography was difficult to standardize, so photographers turned to something called a “Shirley card” as a model for color. The card used a brunette, caucasian woman as the template, which meant that anyone who didn’t have that complexion wouldn’t come out as well. This sort of bias shaped photography and therefore shaped how people saw each other, and themselves.
  • Ramirez brings this all back to her scientific field, materials science. It’s a field that sits at the intersection of chemistry and physics, and it doesn’t get as much attention as either of them (Ramirez affectionately calls it the “New Jersey” of scientific fields, after her home state). But Ramirez says that materials science is vital for understanding materials and how they shape us. She believes that it’s something of a two-way-street: just as we design materials (for example, the chemicals necessary for developing photographs) so too do materials shape our world (by influencing the way we see each other via photography).

More Reading:

Photography, science, Racism, Ainissa Ramirez, Materials Science

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