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Science Is Sexy: Felice Frankel

“I’m not an artist”. “I put science into pictures”. This is how Felice Frankel begins: scientific photographer at the MIT, last 20 th of May she presented and discussed her work in the lecture “Speaking of science through images: scientific photography”, organized by the University of Trento for the program “Writing and talking of science”.

Author of many publications, i.e. “Envisioning Science, On the Surface of Things e Images of the Extraordinary in Science” con George M. Whitesides, Felice Frankel has followed many paths during her professional career: she first started as a biologist and lab technician, then she went on to landscape architectural photographer she then won a scholarship as “artist-in-residence”, until her present profession of scientific photographer. Inside the science lab, thanks to the collaboration with other scientists, Felice Frankel translates into images objects and scientific concepts she then brings outside, making of herself the ideal mean through which scientists who want to communicate through images can connect to the public.

She appeared many times on the covers of prestigious magazines as Nature, Science, Scientific American and the New York Times, her images are created in order to better communicate the concepts of science, thus making a scientific story more effective, with the conviction that the visual part of a story is as important as the written one. Her images are visualizations, like is suggested by her work-group – Envisioning Science Group – a kind of “collective” based at the Harvard University, which puts together scientists, graphic designers, writers, all united to explore the best ways to visualize scientific concepts.

The process that takes to the realization of an image, is for Felice Frankel a collaboration, and not only the work of a single person. This collective activity is important especially because, the artist herself says, the amount of information and date present in a concept or a scientific object is so big that only through teamwork, the procedure to visualization can be (almost) lossless . The scientist, the technical, the graphic, the photographer are therefore needed, so that they can check not only on the reliability of the process taking to the creation of the image – Felice Frankel avoids digital retouches as much as possible – but also on the final result, that has to be to communicate scientific content.

This leaf is hydrophobic–it repels water. A drop of water beads up on the leaf because the water molecules are attracted to each other at the nanoscale. The attraction between molecules creates a thin skin at the drop’s surface.

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Ciascuno può leggere un’immagine a seconda del proprio bagaglio conoscitivo e culturale, spiega l’artista e, in qualche modo, sembra voler dire che è proprio la proliferazione di letture diverse (e di sguardi alternativi) che va controllata e, se necessario, combattuta. Vedere e leggere sembrano essere due pratiche strettamente legate l’una all’altra, necessarie per poter comprendere le sue immagini.

Per questo motivo, la fotografa chiede che ognuna delle sue immagini sia accompagnata da un testo scritto, una didascalia che spieghi di che cosa l’immagine è illustrazione, il tipo di tecniche e sostanze utilizzate nonchè la loro interazione. Per esempio, l’immagine che ha avviato la carriera della Frankel come fotografa scientifica, apparsa sulla copertina di Science (http://www.imageandmeaning.org/gallery/image3.htm), è accompagnata da parole che la descrivono in questo modo: gocce d’acqua colorate interagiscono con una struttura di materiali idrorepellenti su superficie piatta. Nella conferenza, Felice Frankel spiega di aver utilizzato una combinazione di luce ultravioletta e al tungsteno insieme a colori fluorescenti per realizzare lo scatto.

“Queste immagini non sono artistiche proprio perché viene esplicitata la procedura, e non vi è una componente emotiva o di ricerca su di sé”, sostiene Felice Frankel. Ma è proprio vero che la scacchiera lucida formata da un alternarsi di verde e viola in rilievo non ha nulla a che fare con l’arte? Così sembrerebbe ascoltando la Frankel che, con ironia, racconta di quando a New York contattava innumerevoli gallerie d’arte potenzialmente interessate ad esporre le sue fotografie: dopo una serie di rifiuti (le immagini non erano abbastanza artistiche nemmeno per i galleristi), decise di essere una fotografa scientifica, guadagnando piano piano le copertine delle più importanti riviste scientifiche.

Una goccia di ferrofluido del diametro di tre centimetri versata su una lastra di vetro. Un foglio di carta giallo (un post-it come precisa la Frankel) posizionato sotto la superficie di vetro. Una serie di sette piccoli magneti circolari sotto la carta gialla capaci di interagire con la goccia di ferrofluido fino a modificarne quindi la forma. La goccia non è riconoscibile in questa immagine, né è riconoscibile il post-it giallo. L’armonia del verde, delle sfumature di arancio e giallo, del nero, creano un gioco di superfici lucide e riflettenti, forme tridimensionali che non sembrano rappresentare nulla se non l’interazione tra materiali, consistenze e colori diversi.

A 3-cm drop of ferrofluid on a glass slide. A slip of yellow paper sits below the slide and a set of seven small circular magnets under the paper affects the form of the drop

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It is true, as the American photographer says, that “the process of creating a representation of something clears your mind”, but it is also undeniable that in both the scientific and artistic world, visual representations of undefined phenomena and objects (for example bio-medics images relative to cognitive functions, or images related to quantum mechanics) are almost non-representable. They are images, as theorized by arts historian James Elkins , that represent the limits of representation, more that representing an object. It seems reductive therefore to speak of simple communication when we refer to scientific visualization, also because they use and feed on a number of techniques and notions pertaining to a vocabulary of critics and of artists practices.

Frankel’s images are anything but transparent: they are visible, show themselves on the covers of scientific magazines, far from being a vehicle to more efficiently communicate a scientific content. They are free images, open to the misunderstanding of non-scientists. Even before we understand what reality these images represent, the viewer dwells on the contrast of vivid colors, blue and green, on the liquidity of the colors which not only fill a surface delimited by an outline, but become themselves protagonist shapes.

Felice Frankel‘s images promise to seduce the observer, become haptic , request to be grazed, caressed, not only seen. The background noise of these images – which Frankel wants to eliminate to make them univocally interpretable – is back when the caption disappears and the spectator is left alone, watching. They are feminine images (not only because they were created by a woman), and maybe also in this resides the secret of their appeal.

The shadow of an object which doesn’t seem to belong to it. This is the latest challenge that Felice Frankel presents in her next book: to represent what cannot be represented, like quantum mechanics. Here, as much as the images try to get close to a faithful, incontrovertible representation, the use of metaphor will be needed more and more. Undoubtedly, even if some of the most interesting images are today produced by scientists and not artists, scientists themselves do not seem to interpret images considering their background, a background that cannot be strictly scientific, but that goes inevitably towards arts, its codes and languages

These water drops are constrained by a grid of hydrophobic lines drawn on a flat surface. Because water molecules are attracted to each other at the nanoscale, the drops bead up and do not mix. Coloring the water before dropping it on the grid reinforced this important point.

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The true challenge, not only for Frankel but for anyone who deals with arts as a curator or a critic, would be to emphasize the femininity of these images – and of the science they witness – while respecting their function of mediation, communication and scientific contents transmission, but at the same time freeing these images from the caption that goes with them, from the written word, from any attempt to close them in the definition of science, art or an hybrid between them, allowing them to be, simply, images.

Until the time when someone will be able to look at these pictures and not only read them, Felice Frankel will continue to keep her secret, almost a promise of an internal revolution: that science is sexy! Perhaps those artists who set foot in science labs have already understood this?


http://web.mit.edu/felicef/

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  • Silvia Casini Silvia Casini

    Silvia Casini is scientific coordinator of Arscientia (www.arscientia.eu) and a research fellow at Ca’ Foscari University, Venice, Department of Philosophy and Cultural Heritage. After her first degree in Philosophy, she was awarded an AHRC-funded PhD [...]

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