Photograph 51: Snapping the Invisible

Anna Ziegler’s play, “Photograph 51,” named after the famed (or not as famed as it should be) X-ray photograph Rosalind Crick snapped of DNA, opens with a fictional Crick talking to her former husband:

“You know what the atmosphere was like in the lab? We made the invisible visible. We could see atom, not only see them–manipulate them, move them around. We were so powerful. Our instruments felt like extensions of our own bodies. We could see everything, really see it, except, sometimes, what was right in front of us. (Beat.) When I was a child I used to draw shapes. Shapes overlapping, like endless Venn diagrams. My parents said, ‘Rosalind, maybe you should draw people? Don’t you want to draw our family? Our little dog?’ I didn’t. I drew patterns of the tiniest repeating structures. In my mind were patterns of the tiniest repeating structures” (11).

For a dissertation that seems to be increasingly shaping itself around invisibility, sight, science, and art, the opening of “Photograph 51” is more than I could ask for. The play even thinks of Crick as a photographer (again, I couldn’t ask for more):

“…when I first got to use my father’s camera, I went outside and found four leaves. I arranged them carefully, on the curb. But the photograph I took was not of leaves. See, nothing is just one thing. This was a map, rivers the veins of a barren land. And when I told my father I wanted to become a scientist, he said, ‘Ah, I see.’ Then he said ‘No.'”

Crick’s photographic eye is a particular one, tied to microscopy and scientific sight. Photography’s microscopic eye is evidenced in its very beginnings, from William Henry Talbot’s photomicrography.

I mean, how gorgeous is this? I like the idea of positioning Crick within a tradition of photography that melds the scientific with the aesthetic (William Henry Talbot being a prime example). I can see myself having a chapter on Crick, or perhaps a chapter devoted to photomicroscopy, or maybe a chapter on scientific imaging. It’s difficult to say at this point, but I’m definitely inspired and have been thinking about this all for the past couple of months. I’ll end here with Marcus DeSieno’s contemporary photomicroscopic work that brings back the tintype. I’d love to figure out how to do this and play around with photomicroscopic tintypes of blood cells and neurons:


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