Photograph 51 by Rosalind Franklin* is one image that provides a continuous source of intrigue and inspiration. This crystal x-ray micrograph played a crucial part in understanding the double helical structure of DNA. An innovative photographer, Franklin made a clear image by injecting moisture into her camera so that the space between the film and the lens would have a similar humidity to the environment surrounding her subject. She is remembered as a scientist, but in attempting to picture something in order to better understand it she was undertaking an artistic endeavor.
The double helix as we know it today is a drawing (often computer rendered) of discrete intertwining ribbons bridged together with little rungs to form a twisted ladder. Photograph 51 is a grainy, obscure perspectival space. The image unnerves me. I feel drawn to its depth as if looking off the edge of a building, but at the same time I cannot locate my own position relative to the conveyed space. I think this should be the emblematic picture of “life’s code.” With each milestone in the progression of genetics we disprove our assumptions. Tidy drawings of the double helix mislead us into believing that life is something we fully understand and can redesign. Photograph 51 depicts a deep tunnel of nucleic acids, not a picture of a genome but rather a glimpse into genetic space.
Gregory Vershbow received his MFA from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in 2010 and holds a BA in photography and biology from Hampshire College. His work is in the permanent collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Getty Museum and the Boston Athenaeum. He is represented by Robert Klein Gallery in New York and PMW Gallery in Stamford, CT.
*Credit for the photo is not always clear (as with much in the annuls of science!). Wikipedia says Photograph 51 was “taken by Raymond Gosling in May 1952, under the direction of Rosalind Franklin at King’s College London.”