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Jackson’s ‘Dark Machines’ exhibit on display at MIT Museum

The Dark Matter Neutron Detector at the Laboratory for Nuclear Science, as photographed by Daniel Jackson.
The Dark Matter Neutron Detector at the Laboratory for Nuclear Science, as photographed by Daniel Jackson.
Photo: Daniel Jackson

Fifty years ago, famed photographer Berenice Abbott came to MIT to make images for scientific textbooks. For two years she chronicled various scientific phenomena while visiting research laboratories across campus. As the MIT Museum prepared to open its new Kurtz Gallery for Photography with an inaugural exhibit of Abbott’s MIT photographs this spring, Curator Gary Van Zante came up with a concept to breath new life into Abbott’s pictures: juxtapose Abbott’s images, which were taken from the vantage point of a professional photographer with no scientific background, with photographs shot by an active scientist at MIT.

Thus Van Zante approached Daniel Jackson — a professor of electrical engineering and computer science, principal investigator at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), and an avid photographer — about following in Abbott’s footsteps and documenting scientific research underway at MIT. The result is a new exhibit of Jackson’s photographs called “Dark Machines: Inside MIT’s Laboratories,” now on display at the MIT Museum.

By creating two complimentary exhibits, Van Zante was, “Looking at the interplay between a professional photographer with a historical body of work from the 1950s and a current practicing faculty member exploring science through his photography as an avocation. We might have found another scientific photographer, but Daniel was able to pursue this project on a much more personal level. He knew Abbott’s work well, and had a particular way of thinking about it and looking at it.”

For several months last year, Jackson toured different labs at MIT and snapped hundreds of pictures of everything from the Dark Matter Neutron Detector at the Laboratory for Nuclear Science to the Alcator C-MOD Tokamak Fusion Reactor, the engines at the Gas Turbine Laboratory and the machine rooms at CSAIL. While he took a similar photographic journey to Abbott’s, even photographing some machinery such as the cyclotron and wind tunnel, which existed in Abbott’s time, Jackson’s images, which he captured in black and white using a digital SLR camera, reflect a different perspective of scientific research at MIT.

“Daniel’s images are quite different in terms of approach. Abbott was photographing phenomena more than Daniel, while Daniel is photographing more of the process, the space and the labs,“ Van Zante said. “The questions you ask when you see his photographs are about the science; what is this researcher doing, measuring and experimenting with? Abbott was not concerned with how the science was done, but instead on the most realistic record of the physical phenomena she could achieve."

While Jackson and Abbott both shot pictures in the style of straight photography, an approach that aims for depicting a scene in the most realistic manner possible, the feel from Abbott’s photographs of MIT in the 1950s and Jackson’s images of MIT in the 2010s reflect differing attitudes toward scientific research in American culture.

“Abbott’s work is very clear and optimistic, and is very representative of the America of the '50s. At that time, America had this wonderful bright future and technology was a harbinger of new wealth and changes,” Jackson said. “My photos are a bit more ambiguous. They raise more questions, I think, about our ambivalence about science and big machines, and what they mean for us particularly because of our concerns about the environment, energy, nuclear weapons and mechanization.”

For Jackson, the assignment was a wonderful opportunity to learn about different research underway at MIT. As an artist, he found it particularly interesting to see the contrast between the state-of-the-art equipment used in labs across campus and the researchers’ antique steelcase office chairs. As a computer scientist, Jackson was intrigued to go inside different physical lab spaces, as most of his research is conducted in his office in front of a computer.

“What was wonderful was meeting a whole lot of people who I otherwise would not have met, and finding out about all kinds of extraordinary work at MIT, extraordinary spaces and machines,” Jackson said. “It was really fun to get to see parts of MIT that I don’t normally see. People are amazing friendly and excited to talk about their research.”

Dark Machines is on display at the MIT Museum through Dec. 31. To see all of Jackson’s photographs captured during his photographic journey around MIT, check out:

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