Science behind the scenes

by World Press Photo

Picturing science is perhaps one of the most challenging tasks a photographer may face.

How do you visualize something that is often more conceptual and abstract than concrete and tangible? And which takes place in the scientist’s brain, a computer, or a laboratory? Boris Babanov gave it a try in his 1985 winning photo of the prominent Russian scientist Georgy Flyorov discussing nuclear physics with his colleague Evgeny Vorobyov, while David Gamble visualized Stephen Hawkings’ exceptional mind in his portrait of the famous mathematician for Time magazine in 1988.

Exciting place

Between 1977 and 2003, science had its own category at World Press Photo, first in combination with arts & sciences and from 1986 onwards in science & technology. Although a photo of someone working in a laboratory is potentially mundane, many prize-winning photos offer a glimpse of science behind the scenes, presenting the lab as an exciting place where the newest technologies are being developed. Such as the wind tunnels at ONERA in France, where aerodynamics are studied (photographed by Philippe Gontier), the testing labs at the Fraunhofer Society in Germany (by Thomas Ernsting), famous telescopes worldwide (by Roger Ressmeyer and Joe McNally), and CERN, the world’s largest particle physics laboratory in Geneva, where both Patrick Landmann and Peter Ginter made award-winning photos.

Visually attractive

Robots provided perhaps the most photogenic subjects in the field, as George Steinmetz’s and Peter Menzel’s winning pictures illustrate. For his story about EISCAT, the space meteorology base in Norway, Olivier Grunewald made ample use of the Northern Lights’ visual qualities, the magnetic storms studied by the scientists at the base. A more abstract subject, however, earned Peter Ginter his first prize in the 1993 contest: the revolutionary influence of genetics on medicine and medications, translated into visually attractive imagery.

Alchemist’s cave

Without exception, all these winning photographs are shot in color. To heighten a sense of expectation and excitement associated with new discoveries, many photographers created highly saturated, almost fluorescent colors and strong contrasts in their pictures, applying artificial and natural light in a sophisticated way. By choosing an unusual angle as well, the functional and sterile laboratory was changed into a mysterious alchemist’s cave. “The drama factor is important,” Chris Jones, art editor of the British science weekly New Scientist, said in World Press Photo’s Newsletter (July 1991). She explained that photographers working in the field of science always try to find a balance between the best possible illustration of a complicated subject and the best possible photo.

Boris A. Babanov

David Gamble

Philippe Gontier

Thomas Ernsting

Roger H. Ressmeyer

Joseph McNally

Patrick Landmann

Peter Ginter

George Steinmetz

Peter J. Menzel

Olivier Grunewald

Peter Ginter