Browsing the university library at Universität Leipzig, the choice before Charlotte Bruns was an easy one. As a PhD student, she enjoyed working in the library, preferring to trawl the library for suitable books for her research ‘the old-fashioned way’. One black book with white waves on the cover stood out in the history of science section: Objectivity, by historians Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison. After flicking through it momentarily, she took it with her and a German copy has graced her bookcase at home for some time.

The title, the black cover and the thickness of the book (over five hundred pages) give little cause to expect anything colourful. However, those who read the book immediately understand why Bruns, who has been a researcher and lecturer at Erasmus University Rotterdam since March last year, took it home with her. The publication is filled with fascinating drawings and photographs from old scientific books and atlases. Using these images, the authors demonstrate that the meaning of objectivity within science always depends on social, historical and technical context and therefore is constantly changing.

Favourite genre: Classics and historical non-fiction.

Motivation: Immersing yourself in a good story and discovering new perspectives.

Number of books per year: About twenty.

Last book read: Dancing on Ropes by Anna Aslanyan. “A great book on the role of translation in cultural and social contexts, including a lot of examples of historical misconceptions.”

Changing meanings

Ernst Haeckel Kunstformen der Natur 1904
A jellyfish drawn by Ernst Haeckel in 1904 Image credit: Ernst Haeckel

Take one of Bruns’ favourite images from the book: Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by the scientist and artist Ernst Haeckel. Bruns calls the illustration of different types of jellyfish ‘a feast for the eyes’. “In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, animals and plants were depicted symmetrically and without ‘deviation’, as if nature were perfect. Scientists only wanted to depict the typical, essential aspects of a plant or animal. As a result, objectivity in this era was synonymous with an idealised form of nature.”

We need only cast our gaze around vintage and charity shops to see that we no longer consider such illustrations – which were always drawn by artists – to be objective and scientific. Drawings are routinely taken from old science books to be copied and sold as posters and postcards. Bruns: “We now regard these drawings as ‘artsy’ and use them as decoration.”

This novel meaning is a result of circumstances changing over the years. With the advent of the camera in the nineteenth century, the meaning of objectivity changed into: do not idealise nature, but let it speak for itself through photographs. This then became the dominant notion in the scientific community. Partly due to technological developments, nature is nowadays often depicted in an almost unrecognisable way, meaning that the visualisation needs to be explained by an expert (like in the case of x-ray images, for example).

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During her bachelor programme in Art & Culture Studies, Bruns focused mainly on art history. It was during her master programme that she first encountered the sociological aspect of images. “That was when I learned that not only large, historically significant works of art are interesting – but all images are. They all say something about what they meant to people at a particular time.” She decided to delve into the sociological aspect of images in more depth during her PhD track.

Among other things, this involved investigating the ways in which stereo photography – a technique in which depth is created in photographs – was used in nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century society. “The authors of Objectivity were an inspiration to me”, says Bruns. “They taught me not just to look at what an image looks like, but to focus on what problem an image solved in its time.” Idealistic illustrations like Haeckel’s, for example, allowed scientists to ‘tame’ nature in all its various forms – no matter how peculiar or unscientific we now believe this might have been. “By choosing the perfect over the imperfect, scientists were able to capture the world in ‘types’, without any random particulars. The images do not show a single variation of the natural phenomenon, but rather the ‘idea’ behind it.”

The book also helped her write a dissertation on the potential of stereo photography as a precursor to contemporary technologies, such as 3D cinema and virtual reality. And with considerable success: it won her a research prize and a prize for the best dissertation. “Like the authors, I wanted to use plain language and have a clear common thread throughout, so my dissertation is accessible to a large number of people”, says Bruns. “While reading Objectivity, I noticed that it also made for a fun research project for the researchers themselves. During my PhD track, I found out for myself how much fun and how exciting it is to trawl through the archives. I tried to convey that feeling in my dissertation, too.”

Charlotte Bruns has been a lecturer and researcher at the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication since March. Her research interests include visual sociology and science communication. She studied Culture Studies at several universities, with a focus on art history, and obtained her PhD from the Technische Universität Chemnitz in Germany. Bruns won the University Award for Best Dissertation and the Thinking Photography Research Award for her dissertation Raumbilder und ihre Gebrauchsweisen (Spatial images and their modes of use).