Photographing What Can't Be Captured


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Chris McCaw, Heliograph #7 2012. San Francisco Bay, from Candlestick Point. Gelatin-silver paper negative.

This photograph features three exposures made over 3/4 of a day and thus shows not the sun but rather its path. Ken Johnson writes about the work in the New York Times:

"Instead of conventional film [McCaw] uses sheets of photo paper ordinarily used for printing positive images from negatives. In exposures of 15 minutes to 24 hours the lens concentrates the heat of the sun into a small, inflammatory dot. As the sun travels across the sky, the hot spot moves across the photo paper burning brown lines and cutting through the surface like a welder's torch slicing through steel."

Jakob von Narkiewitsch-Jodko, A Spark Captured on the Surface of the Body of a Well-Washed Prostitute, [Etincelle Prise Sur la Surface du Corps d'une Prostituée Bien Lavée] 1895.

Jakob von Narkiewitsch-Jodko's 1896 image of "Effluvia From an Electrified Hand Resting on a Photographic Plate" is better known than his spark photograph shown here. In the late 1800s claims of "magnetic effluvia" and "vital rays" emitted by the human body were encouraged by early photographic images like this one. Narkiewitsch-Jodko demonstrated electrography at a Russian Technical Society exhibition in 1889. When an electric field is just strong enough around the conductor to create a conductive region, a corona discharge can be seen.

The technique used to capture this electrical flow is called Kirlian photography, named after the Russian electrical engineer Semyon Kirlian who discovered that if an object on a photographic plate is connected to a high-voltage source, an image is produced on the photographic plate.

Stovall Studio, 3:00 P.M. The Black Blizzard of Sunday, April 14, 1935.

This photograph was taken during the famous black blizzard in 1935 that gave the Dust Bowl its name. The website of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that during the 1930s the settlers of the Great Plains were already suffering from dust storms:

"They were known as dirt storms, sand storms, black blizzards, and 'dusters.' It seemed as if it could get no worse, but on Sunday, the 14th of April 1935, it got worse. The day is known in history as 'Black Sunday,' when a mountain of blackness swept across the High Plains and instantly turned a warm, sunny afternoon into a horrible blackness that was darker than the darkest night. Famous songs were written about it, and on the following day, the world would hear the region referred to for the first time as 'The Dust Bowl.'"

View The Unphotographable exhibition page here

H.G. KAISER, Sun Cycle. December 21, 1917. Looking South from Government Hill.

This photograph was taken in Anchorage, Alaska. The image is made up of 12 exposures—one per hour—tracking the sun's movement in the sky. Because of the northernly location, the sun does not rise as high as it would farther south. This explains the lower arch of the sun's pattern during the 12-hour period.

Photographs of the unphotographable? Impossible, you say? The cheekily-titled book The Unphotographable and eponymous exhibition jump around like a magpie in the archives of photography, returning with all manner of treasures. Among the oddities in this thought-provoking collection are the famous "Loch Ness Monster" photograph, emphasizing the myth-making power of photography; electrical waves, not impossible to see, just rarely satisfying; an extreme close-up of the colored grains in film, representing the seeds of possibility; and the barely-there, as in Adam Fuss's photograph of a black silhouette on black.

As Fraenkel Gallery director Jeffrey Fraenkel writes in the introduction, "Given that photography until recently has largely depended on an amalgam of light, silver salts, and other such elements that cause images to (apparently) materialize out of nothing, its alchemical aspects are not difficult to perceive."

F. Baldet & F. Quénisset, Photographs of Comet Morehouse. October 23, 1908 & November 27, 1908.

US astronomer Daniel Walter Morehouse first observed this comet, now designated C/1908 R1, on September 1, 1908. A. De La Baume Pluvinel and F. Baldet wrote in The Astrophysical Review that "the exceptionally fine weather during the autumn of 1908 and the considerable northern declination of this comet have enabled us to study its spectrum under very favorable circumstances." The comet hasn't returned and may be on a parabolic orbit, in which case it won't pass by Earth again.

Paul Graham, Fuji Fujicolor Super HR400, 400asa, Beyond Caring, 1984

To create his "Films" series, Graham magnified the different film types he had exposed in earlier work—thereby recycling his own images into a second use. This is a magnified image of the emulsion on the surface of developed color film. The color dye speckles are created by chemical reactions in the development process. In a highly detailed micro view, we see the blue, green and red dye layers that bond with silver salts to create color-sensitive crystals.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Bay of Sagami, Atami. 1997

In Hiroshi Sugimoto's ethereal photo the sun is present, but not distinct. The image seems to embody a liminal space—we have an impression of the sea and the reflecting surface of the water, rather than a description.

"The beginnings of life are shrouded in myth: Let there [be] water and air," Sugimoto writes on his website. "Let's just say that there happened to be a planet with water and air in our solar system, and moreover at precisely the right distance from the sun for the temperatures required to coax forth life. While hardly inconceivable that at least one such planet should exist in the vast reaches of universe, we search in vain for another similar example. Mystery of mysteries, water and air are right there before us in the sea. Every time I view the sea, I feel a calming sense of security, as if visiting my ancestral home; I embark on a voyage of seeing."

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