Esteemed thinker: Marie Curie

Marie curie_toned The first time you looked through a telescope and saw craters of the moon and the first time you placed a celery stalk in water mixed with food coloring and its leaves turned from green to blue… you knew you were in the presence of magic. Oh, not the fake kind of magic where your Uncle was hiding the coin in his other hand…even the ‘young’ you understood this was a trick! No, it’s the kind of magic that seduces you, a yearning to learn more … it’s the special magic that nagged at your youthful imagination to find out what makes the leaves turn colors in autumn, why does the wind whistle through the oak’s canopy, and how is it that the firefly wears a little light that goes on at night… the real magic that comes alive with knowledge.

Just perhaps this is how it must be for the life of the scientist; a quest to discover or uncover magic. Of course I am using magic as a metaphor in relationship to scientific discovery, however just for a moment think about it …it often seems like such work would be aligned with the spirit of wonderment… almost a childishly magical realm…

And so with the thoughts of the magic in science, today’s blog brings you the esteemed thinker: Marie Curie; given name Maria Salomea Skłodowska and best known as Madame Curie (1867-1934)… legendary woman scientist… pioneer in the study of radioactivity. Born in Russian occupied Poland, at the age of fifteen she obtained a higher education (forbidden to girls in Poland) from a clandestine, revolving academy for women taught in private homes. In 1891 she went to Paris to study at the Sorbonne where she met and married the French professor and physicist Pierre Curie (1895). Their life together was mutually respected whereby their research and discoveries led the way for future generations. Marie Curie’s life is nothing short of a heroine, having earned two Nobel Prizes in Physics and in Chemistry and culminating in the tragic death from radium; the very discovery that brought her fame.

So, let us take pause to hear a bit of her words during a debate she presided over in Madrid (1933) on “The Future of Culture”. We will celebrate this extraordinary woman with a brief but solitary moment out of own busy day…

“… I am among those who think that science has great beauty. A scientist in his laboratory is not only a technician: *he is also a child placed before natural phenomena which impress him like a fairy tale. We should not allow it to be believed that all scientific progress can be reduced to mechanisms, machines, gearings, even though such machinery also has its own beauty. Neither do I believe that the spirit of adventure runs any risk of disappearing in our world. If I see anything vital around me, it is precisely that spirit of adventure, which seems indestructible and it akin to curiosity… ”

* it is curious that Madame Curie only used the masculine pronouns ‘he’ and ‘him’ although she herself was a great and renown scientist at this time in her life. However, when we reflect back with the knowledge that women in France had only gained the right to vote in 1944 (by the order of 21 April 1944 adopted by the provisional government of General de Gaulle in Algiers) it really is not too curious after-all…

Esteemed thinker: Frances Benjamin Johnston

johnston 4 I find black and white photography exceptionally aesthetic; for the tones and hues are not described just by their names, but are far reaching…crossing into spectrums that range from dark to light…tipping the scale of extremes that include graying nights to snowy days. Composition and subjects rely on form, strong lines, the distinction of dark and light that are so simply beautiful they need not a rainbow of colors to define image.

And so it was for our early photographers who were the masters of this craft. I find work in what some contemporaries may interpret as slow and cumbersome as invigorating; the darkroom for me was where magic took place, where you could manipulate a picture not through digital technology, but rather with time and your hands. .. where you would hold your breath as a picture slowly came alive floating in a vat of slippery liquid. And then like a dripping handkerchief, hang it up to dry…

Today’s blog I bring you Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864- 1952) a most remarkable woman who gained prominence as a great photographer during a time when women had few rights and men dominated the field. She studied art at the Académie Julian in Paris and at the Art Students League, Washington, DC. In 1894 she opened a photography studio and gained international recognition through her photographs of presidents, portraits of the elite, and her work as a photojournalist and architectural photographer.

Mammoth cave
(Mammoth Cave)

In celebration of her artistic prowess, I bring you today an excerpt from “What a Woman Can Do with a Camera” by Frances Benjamin Johnston, in Ladies Home Journal dated 1897. Let us reflect on the advice of our esteemed thinker.

“When Distinction and Originality are Aimed at:
To those ambitious to do studio portraiture I should say, study art first and photography afterward , if you aim at distinction and originality. Not that a comprehensive technical training is unnecessary, for, on the contrary a photographer needs to understand his tools as thoroughly as a painter does the handling of his colors and brushes. Technical excellence, however, should not be the criterion where picturesque effect in concerned. In truth, to my mind, the first precept of artistic photography is, “Learn early the immense difference between the photography that is merely a photograph, and that which is also picture… ”