Art and Science

The fine arts and the hard sciences have more in common than most people believe, because both are driven by dopamine. The poet composing lines about a hopeless lover is not so different from the physicist scribbling formulas about excited electrons. They both require the ability to look beyond the world of the senses into a deeper, more profound world of abstract ideas. . . . The better you are at managing the most complex, abstract ideas, the more likely you are to be an artist.

Daniel Z. Lieberman and Michael E. Long, The Molecule of More

The following contemplations filled my mind on a cold winter morning in a silent and lonesome campsite in the desert. I woke up, as I always do, long before first light. This time of year, it takes me a few minutes after I wake to muster the fortitude to extract myself from my warm bed, pile on layers of clothing and wait for a bit, shivering, waiting to build up sufficient warmth to feel comfortable, or as close to it as I can get. I pass these awkward moments boiling a kettle of water for coffee, toasting some bread on my cast iron skillet for a morning sandwich, often while listening to a local radio station, podcast, or audio book. The words, the thoughts, the scents, help distract me from the cold until I am ready to go about the day’s work.

There is no describing the olfactory magic of the mixed aromas of a hearty camp breakfast blended with the scents of a wild desert. (I know the same is true of other natural environments, too, although I don’t experience them as often). Each season, the blend is a bit different. The food is largely the same, by force of habit, but the presence or absence of certain plant essences, the level of moisture in the air and in the soil, and many other factors, are to the experience of starting a day in the desert as fine spices are to a good dish.

Although a private affair, I consider it among my greatest accomplishments to have made a life for myself in which I get to start most days enjoying a rich cup of coffee with a hearty breakfast, watching as a desert landscape emerges slowly out of darkness, and to end most of these same days sipping some good tequila with a satisfying dinner as I watch the landscape fading slowly back into darkness. In these moments, I am often reminded of a favorite line by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. “Like a ship moving into port,” he wrote, “we of the desert come up into the night.”

The previous evening, I finished the last chapter of a book about the effects of dopamine, out of which I plucked the quotation above. The memory of what I had learned still lingered in my mind. Rather than start a new book, I decided instead to spend the morning catching up on some photography podcasts that had accumulated on my phone over the last few weeks.

A few minutes into an otherwise enjoyable episode, I felt a bit disappointed to hear the narrator repeat casually a tired old trope about photography being in some privileged position “both art and science.”

Is photography more a science, and photographers more scientific, just because the gadgets we use are more technologically advanced than brushes or chisels? Is photography more an art, and photographers more artistic, because it’s easier to make beautiful creations in photography than in media relying on pigments, notepads, word processors, or chunks of marble? Could one not equally make the case that ease and reliance on “black box” technological automation may in fact make photography potentially less artistic and less scientific than other pursuits?

These thoughts, fueled by the gradual infusion of caffeine into my bloodstream, set the following train of thought in motion.

~~~

Art and science may enable certain technologies and creations. Art and science may also be the goals for certain works and technologies. But no technology can be said without further qualification to be an art or a science, let alone some elevated combination (if not a chimeric blend) of both.

At the risk of causing discomfort to some practitioners, I offer that if you ask most “nature photographers” about such things as physics, chemistry, biology, geology, astronomy, climate, the names and classification of flora, fauna, rocks, or other natural subjects before their lens, you will find that most have limited or no knowledge of the science of nature. Ask most “street photographers,” “humanitarian photographers,” “food photographers,” or “travel photographers” about the psychology, sociology, economics, history, anthropology, archaeology, gastronomy, climatology, ecology, or urban design practices explaining the appearances, behaviors, or predilections of the people, dwellings, rituals or other phenomena they photograph, and you will find that most have limited or no knowledge of these sciences.

You may consider the “science” of photography to be in its technological complexity: its materials, processes, the sensors, or computers built into photographic tools. Odds are most photographers have some, albeit often limited understanding of these. However, in this sense photography is no more scientific than radio broadcasting, filmmaking, electronic music, or other technologically advanced media.

As far as the sciences behind photographic images are concerned, the meanings and emotional impressions of photographic images rely on the same cognitive processes and obey the same rules of gestalt as any other visual work. Certainly, there is still much we don’t know about how these perceptions manifest in our neural circuitry, but the quest to understand more about it is the domain of scientific research (much of it employing the same creative thinking as our greatest artistry), having little to do photography.

Of course, there are some distinguishing characteristics (scientifically speaking) between photographs and other visual creations, but these difference in themselves don’t qualify photography uniquely as a science, certainly not more so than other media or images made by other methods of creation, recording, or investigation.

Likewise, ask most photographers who present their work as art about such things as historical art movements, philosophies of art, the lives and works of great artists, or details of any art beyond the style of photography they happen to practice themselves, and you will find that most have no knowledge of art (not even of just photographic art) in the larger sense.

Most photographers lack scientific knowledge of their tools and subjects. Most also lack an understanding of art being more than just the pursuit of pleasing aesthetics. Most photographers in truth are driven by neither science nor art, but by love of beautiful aesthetics, the enjoyment of tinkering with photographic tools, or by the social aspects of sharing a hobby with a like-minded community. Indeed, it is likely true that most photographers—including those who may later become great artists and scientists—begin their journeys in photography with one or more of these motivations, only later to discover the artistic or scientific uses possible in the medium.

It is worthwhile, I believe, for anyone who has pursued photography to a point of feeling comfortable with its basic technical and aesthetic aspects, to then explore further, whether in scientific or artistic directions, or both, rather than assume some endowment or mastery of “art and science” by the mere virtue of knowing how to use a camera.

There are some commonalities between science and art that are worth considering, and that may lead to useful insights, many of which may be relevant to photography as a medium for artistic and/or scientific expression. In both art and science, you will find some who practice by rote, according to formulas, toward predictable goals, or to make salable artifacts, and some who practice their work creatively, aiming to explore areas yet unknown, in search of discoveries, new knowledge, and new understanding. All these modes of work are also possible in photography. Which fit your own temperament and goals?

In both science and art, you will find some who seek to explore and understand the nature of visible and commonly experienced reality. In both, you will also find some who wish to probe beyond surface appearances, beyond common interpretations and styles, beyond the visible world, in hope of contributing to, enlarging, deepening, adding to reality as we know and experience it today—those described by science-fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin as, “the realists of a larger reality.” Which of these aspirations best suit your own hopes and interests?

Being a photographer does not by necessity make one an artist or a scientist. These qualifications, at least by their stricter definitions, are not inherent in any medium—photography or other. They need to be earned: studied, researched, practiced, explored, contemplated, honed. Photography, in the abstract, without further qualification, is neither art nor science.

Photography, like other media, is enabled by science but is not itself science. Photography, like other media, can also—not by default, but only if one chooses—be practiced as art. Photography is a medium—a way of relaying information, a means to many possible ends. Its value, as either art or science, is only as great as the value of the uses one makes of it: what one does with it, expresses with it, creates with it, enriches one’s living experiences with it, learns and discovers by it.

Forget the tropes and slogans. If you wish to be a better artist, study and practice art. If you wish to be a better scientist, study and practice science. Art and science—each separately, but more so when explored through and/or bound together by philosophy—may open doors to immense realms of knowledge, far beyond what any person can hope to learn in one lifetime. They may also offer one insights into the grandest and deepest mysteries of existence, far beyond what any person may hope to fully explore in one (or any number of) lifetimes. In short, both art and science possess the power to continually enrich and enlarge one’s knowledge, understanding, and living experiences for as long as one lives. The mere practice of photography guarantees none these.

Conversely, there is little to be gained and much to be lost—by an individual, and by the collective of humanity—by cheapening and trivializing the profundity that these words—art, science, philosophy—may come to mean for anyone willing to delve into their deepest regions. Photography may assist in these endeavors; photographs may express what one may learn and discover in these endeavors; but to say that photography is art or science or anything other than just a means of making images, is as naive as it is misinformed, if not outright hackneyed.

The argument is not difficult to make: the more you know about the science of photography, the better you’ll be able to employ your photographic tools in the service of your photographic goals; the more you know about the science of the things you photograph, the more likely you are to find them, to understand them, to portray them at their most elevated and interesting times; the more you know about the sciences of creativity and visual perception, the more original and expressive your work will be; the more you know about the history and philosophy of art and the works of other artists, the broader will be the range of ways you will know to express yourself in art and the greater will be your chances of making your own original contributions to the evolution of art beyond what has already been done.


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In the Pink

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15 thoughts on “Art and Science

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  1. A painter friend of mine, who is of a scientific bent and a casual photographer, says that the science and technology used to make the materials for painters – canvas, paints, brushes, etc – is on the same level as that in today’s cameras. But painters don’t directly use the technology, just the output of it. So the connection to science and technology is not as immediate. But she would say that painting could be said to be both “art and science” because of that technological foundation. She would also say the “art” or “science” is about the practice not the media or the tools.

    1. Thank you, Mark! I think your friend is right. It reminded me of this famous passage by physicist Richard Feynman:

      “I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say ‘look how beautiful it is,’ and I’ll agree. Then he says ‘I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,’ and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”

  2. Guy, Very interesting and thought provoking article. I view photography, like I do fly fishing, astronomy and some of my other hobbies as both, art and science!

    1. Thanks for the excellent article. These comments remind me of Persig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” where the author makes an elaborate, yet elegant, treatise on the fusion of the rational versus the aesthetic; or, classical versus romantic. Perplexing, as I see it. Whether it’s an artist performing with scientific means or a scientist appreciating beauty, neither is not always mutually exclusive of each other.

    2. Thank you, Tom! Yes, this is part of the point I was trying to make: photography is not unique as a combination of art and science. The same can be said of many other things. Generally speaking, there is science behind every phenomenon available to us. And practically every human activity can at least to some degree be considered an art.

  3. The two don’t necessarily need to exist in separate vacuum spaces. I usually think of the art focused more on the WHY and the science on the HOW.
    There is science in the mixing of paints and the balance of a good brush.

    1. Thanks, Mark! I think for most people, that would be the distinction between art (why) and craft (how), but ultimately these are all “fuzzy” characterizations considering the many definitions and interpretations of the term.
      Science, as we have come to define it today, is more strict: it is the pursuit of finding out what is true (more precisely, what is most likely to be true). Science in its pure form has no practical purpose or meaning, it just provides an evidenciary foundation for other things (art, technology, philosophy, etc.).

      1. I suppose I was thinking deeper than craft for “how” – beyond shutter speeds, isos and apertures. The science involved in the creation of the tools used in the craft. Scientific principles of physics and optics to create lenses, mechanical and electrical engineering of the black boxes we use. Chemistry in ink colorfastness and paper binding. Manufacturing engineering and robotics of assembly lines.

  4. Very interesting article, Guy. As someone who dabbles in both art (photography) and science, I honestly can’t recall an instance when my mathematical/scientific bent has inspired my photography, but I can recall numerous instances when photography has inspired my scientific being. In fact, I have *found* proofs of several esoteric theorems (one of them allowed me to graduate 🙂 ) after long hikes in the mountains and intense photography sessions. Personally speaking, somehow photography helps me *see* things better, in an uncluttered manner, which I don’t find anywhere else.

    1. Thank you, Arindam! How interesting that photography has helped your thinking about a mathematical theorem. If I may venture a guess, I think the cause is not specifically photography but the nature of the creative process. When our minds are distracted from a specific problem we are trying to solve, the brain still continues to “incubate” and to employ divergent thinking to come up with a solution.

      1. “If I may venture a guess, I think the cause … to employ divergent thinking to come up with a solution.” I think you are 100% correct. I am sure there’s someone somewhere for whom music does the trick, or painting, or whatever. Even more recent … I was writing a proposal, which my collaborators repeatedly rejected as being too technical and profound. Fed up with the repeated rejections, I just trashed the entire proposal, went for a wonderful fall hike, came back with a renewed sense of clarity and purpose, and rewrote the proposal completely. I was stunned when I sent it across and my collaborators replied with “this is going to win it, no edits needed”, and it did. There’s something about arts (I would include literature in this category) … every scientific person should engage in some form of it (my opinion).

      2. And since we are on a photography related blog, I should add … when I asked myself what was different between the earlier versions and the final version of the proposal, I realized that I was originally making a photo of a forest which was compositionally and technically perfect (every tree and blade of grass perfectly placed), but lacked life. The final version was compositionally and technically incomplete and fuzzy, but lively, and successfully conveyed the allure and mystique of the forest, drawing the readers to ask questions for themselves.

  5. Art isn’t about beauty and science isn’t about philosophy. To get bogged down in those is to lose sight of deeper layers of information and existential reality independent of ancillary thoughts going off in different directions. “If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound?” No, it doesn’t. Having a philosophical foundation for discovering the details of CRISPR science does nothing to advance the science. William Eggleston’s practice of photographing democratically can capture the existential every bit as well as an Ansel Adams photograph of a cloud, in many ways better than Ansel.

    1. I agree, Mike. Still, we must remember that art used to be about beauty, and science used to be synonymous with philosophy. As these disciplines became better defined, separate, and more specialized, many were and many still are left out, not always by choice but often by coercion and dogmatism. Education, free thought, and open discourse are often neglected in societies because it is seen as dangerous to various powers, financial interests, and social order. Historically, we happen to live in rare and privileged times, having the means to express such ideas safely and openly, to confront common myths, to help at least some understand the world better. Art, science, and philosophy all have important roles to play in this understanding.

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