Photo-diagram pairings

Michael Lynch on the representational relationships at play in photo-diagram pairings in visual documentation of objects in the life sciences:

The paired relationship is not only sequential, each photograph is not simply more original ‘in time,’ but is presented relative to the diagram as original evidence. The photo’s photo-chemical transfers can be invoked to explain its image as something ‘more real’ than an artistic creation. It is as though the image is imparted by the object itself. Of course, this is not completely so. The photographed materials (i.e., the celluar matrices from the specimen) have been extensively handled in order to prepare them for the picture. Relative to the juxtaposed diagram, however, the photograph less obviously shows the ‘hand’ of the artist. (‘The externalized retina: Selection and mathematization in the visual documentation of objects in the life sciences’, 1988)

 (mitochondrian from the pancreas of the mouse)

Lynch argues that in the dualistic pairing of the photograph with the diagram, the ‘hand of the artist’ behind both images becomes obscured by the eidetic (generalized, idealized, even transcendental) and empirical qualities that both images take on in their pairing together. This pairing gives the images something like the qualities of a Galilean mathesis universalis, similar to what Drucker was talking about in regards to digital images. As Lynch explains, while the diagram “leans slightly more in the ‘eidetic’ direction than does the photograph”, the “common textual surface” that they both share blurs the boundaries between the eidetic ideal image nature of the diagram and the empirical quality of the photograph.

Reasoning and vision are intimately associated from the beginning of the rendering process to its end. It is only by comparing one stage of that process to another that we can distinguish relative degrees of eidetic vs. empirical form. As we trace through the sequence of renderings, we see that the object progressively assumes a generalized, hypothetically guided, didactically useful, and mathematically analyzable form. It becomes progressively less recalcitrant to the textual devices of describing, displaying, comparing, causally accounting, mapping, and measuring. (IBID)

By lining the cloak of the eidetic with the empirical, and vice versa, the paired images are able to compound and enhance a sense of objectivity in each, and in the process the artist’s hand is rather ‘handily’ transfused into that of a scientist’s.


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