She Blinded Me With Science

A photographer turns common objects -- shark teeth, human organs, onions -- into art using high technology

Art and science may appear to have little in common, but behind Catherine Wagner's lens, the two go hand in hand. Wagner, a San Francisco-based photographer and Mills College art professor, first linked the two in her influential series Art & Science: Investigating Matter. Those pictures questioned the cultural impact of modern-day scientific research through images that ranged from still lifes of scientific instruments and beakers to close-ups of internal organs and genetically manipulated tomatoes. She does it again in her latest body of work, Cross Sections, featuring more than 30 large-scale photos taken between 1998 and 2001 that use medical imaging devices — Magnetic Resonance Imaging equipment, Scanning Electron Microscopes — as cameras. The new collection will be shown in its entirety in her upcoming solo exhibition, “Catherine Wagner: Cross Sections,” at the San Jose Museum of Art, and a selection will be on display as part of a group show at the Stephen Wirtz Gallery.

While Wagner may not yet be a household name, she is known to many local photography buffs as one of the area's most prominent shutterbugs, producing thought-provoking work fueled by intellectual curiosity and a meticulous eye for detail. In a 20-year retrospective at the Wirtz Gallery last February, Wagner's career highlights stood out, including pieces on the construction of the George Moscone Center and on American classrooms. While Wagner primarily concentrates on models created by humans rather than on images of people, her work is not devoid of vitality; in fact, by focusing her lens on the products of human life, she crafts an insightful analysis of contemporary society and human existence. In her scientific examinations, she considers the invisible structures of the human body and of everyday objects.

For Cross Sections, Wagner teamed up with scientists at Stanford University and the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel to observe life at an elemental level, taking pictures of slices of onions, organs, shark teeth, and sponges, among other types of matter. The centerpiece is Pomegranate Wall, a massive 8-by-40-foot installation of a pomegranate section, digitally reproduced thousands of times. As in her previous work, these pieces are marked by curiosity, raising questions about the role science plays in our future and in our society that are relevant both to general audiences and to biologists. By linking the two fields of art and science, Wagner reminds us that they are similarly based on the wonder of discovery.

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