Spotlight: “Magnetic Field” by Berenice Abbott

Berenice Abbott, Magnetic Field, 1982 Gelatin silver print, 18.5 x 23.25 David Winton Bell Gallery | Gift of Michael B. Targoff

Berenice Abbott, Magnetic Field, 1982
Gelatin silver print, 18 1/2 x 23 1/4″
David Winton Bell Gallery | Gift of Michael B. Targoff

Berenice Abbott, 1982

This photograph of tiny metal shards oriented and energized by magnetic fields demonstrates Berenice Abbott’s interests in photography and science. While many of her scientific images are based on an extended exposure with strobe lights flashing on an object as it moves through space and time, this photograph catches a single moment. Even though the image depicts a static point in time, the curving trails of metal arranged by a magnetic pull give a riotous sense of movement and dynamism. By pinpointing naturally occurring geometric patterns and rhythms created by scientific processes, Abbott demonstrates her understanding of the aesthetic value of composition.

While Abbott is more famous for her work documenting New York City, she is widely regarded for the decades she spent documenting scientific phenomena in high-contrast, graphically vibrant photographs. Her goal was to explore and illustrate the beneficial qualities of studying science through art. “There is an essential unity between photography, science’s child, and science, the parent.” After years of producing thousands of photographs on her own, she was hired in 1958 at the age of sixty to continue her research for MIT’s Physical Science Study Committee.[1]

This photograph, along with the thirty others from this series in the Bell Gallery collection, is a timely resource considering the active and ambitious STEM to STEAM efforts on Brown and RISD campuses.[2]

Get a closer look at the rich texture of the metal shavings here. Learn more about STEAM research and events here.

-Liz Crawford, Curatorial Assistant

[1] Melby, Julie. Princeton University, “Graphic Arts.” Last modified 2009. Accessed January 23, 2014.

[2] STEAM is a movement begun by RISD that advocates for collaboration in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, Art & Design, and Math.

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