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Learning to Look

MIT students photograph science in action for "Process" exhibit.
Melissa Schumacher
Melissa Schumacher
Melissa Schumacher
Kylie Kawano
Emily Kellison-Lynn

Wisps of steam rise from a coffee cup. A yolk oozes from a cracked egg. An industrial waterjet pumps out high-pressure beams of liquid. These images and others are on display in “Process,” a new exhibit at the Wiesner Student Art Gallery.

The exhibit is the culmination of the pilot course “Objective Narratives: Portraits of Science Through Material Culture and Photography,” taught by Ellan Spero, a PhD student in the Program of Science, Technology, and Society, and sponsored by the Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST) and the freshman Concourse program.

The goal of the course is to teach students how to leverage the power of photography to reflect upon, observe, and communicate more thoughtfully about the material world around them. “Photography is a great tool, because it’s a really conscious process of thinking about what you’re seeing, and thinking about how to communicate what you observe to other people,” Spero says.

Photographers Felice Frankel, Essdras Suarez, and Jan Kostecki gave a series of inspiring and informative guest lectures, and MIT Museum curator Deborah Douglas took students on a tour through the museum’s impressive photography collection. Each presentation delivered an important lesson on the art of seeing. “The goal of the class is to articulate things that get hidden in an everyday landscape of science and technology,” Spero says, pointing to how the exhibit engages those aspects of daily life at their most ephemeral or intangible — the passing of time, for example.

Melissa Schumacher G, a PhD student in philosophy, documented time at different scales. Inspired by the iconic Charles and Ray Eames film “Powers of Ten,” she snapped pictures of phenomena occurring in the spans of 1,000 seconds, 10,000 seconds, and 1,000,000 seconds — from a few hours to a few days. Subjects included a cracked egg, the sun rising over Cambridge, and fingernail growth. “There’s a lot more going on around us than we realize normally,” Schumacher says, “and sometimes it takes having a picture there to really force you to look at it.”

“I don’t really think too much about the machines that I use,” says Kylie Kawano ’14, a senior in architecture. “I think, ‘oh, it’s a laser cutter,’ or ‘oh, it’s a water jet,’ and never about the parts and the way they come together.” For her project, Kawano captured the hidden beauty of the OMAX waterjet machine, used to cut a variety of materials in MIT’s Rapid Prototyping Lab. “Even the most mundane things [about the machine] are very interesting in their own right,” she says.

Emily Kellison-Linn ’16, a sophomore in computer science, photographed the often ethereal processes of evaporation (such as the curls of steam piping from vents and the drying marks on a chalkboard). “It’s challenging to explore an invisible physical process that occurs on the microscopic level,” she notes in her artist statement. Instead, she captured what is left behind: the beautiful, evanescent patterns left by water as it disappears. “I’m interested in how I can bring my artistic interests towards the technical side of MIT, so this class just jumped out to me, like ‘wow, that’s what I’ve been looking for,’” she says.

The exhibit illustrates how photography can heighten our attention to our physical environment and tell important stories about the material world. “One of my intentions for this class was to have moments of pause, to have moments of focus,” Spero says, “to use photography as another tool to say, ‘this part right here is what I think is special, and this is why.’”

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