The Poetics of Science (ongoing)
In the Hong Kong high school textbook “New 21st Century Chemistry”, Chapter 35 Alcohol, Photo 35.24 shows a man in suit lying in front of a historic building.
“An alcoholic sleeping in the streets.” The caption reads.
Upon a closer look, the photos in science textbooks are less “scientific” than one would expect. “Scientific” as in based on the principle of science. “Scientific” as in a truthful representation of our physical world. Stock photos of everyday objects, experimental equipments shot against monochrome backgrounds; irrelevant cartoons grace the pages of physics and chemistry textbooks. These garish images of science communication are unified by a recognizable aesthetics, one motivated by a desire to communicate abstract ideas in what is perceived as the most “intelligible” manners but constrained by technical limitations and tight budgets. These symbols and clichés repeat, multiply and reproduce, time after time, books after books. When, eventually, a pattern appears, a visual language emerges. Perhaps unintentionally, Ideas begins to be communicated and governed by the grammar of these images as much as the images itself.
The Kuleshov effect is a film editing effect demonstrated by Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov in the 1910s and 1920s. It is a mental phenomenon by which viewers derive more meaning from the interaction of two sequential shots than from a single shot in isolation.
Henry Fox Talbot once marvelled at photography’s ability to surpass the limits of human vision. “The eye of the camera would see plainly where the human eye would find nothing but darkness.” He declared in his book “The Pencil of Nature”. In the decades that follows, photography and science have been inextricably intertwined. From the photographic plate made by Henri Becquerel showing the presence of invisible radiation to the Hubble Space Telescope recording the light of galaxies 3-8 billion light years distant from our planet, countless images help us understand our physical universe. They become the manifestation of knowledge - the collective achievement of human intelligence.
For the past two years, I studied imagery in science textbooks in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Looking at the productions of these imageries, and how these images are enfolded in the books, I pinpoint and unravel the discourse at the intersection of meaning creation and propagating scientific knowledge. On top of that, I focus on the process in which photography, graphic design and written text are interwoven to shape our understanding (or misunderstanding) of the world.