Stanley Greenberg likes to peer into the insides of things. He investigates inner mechanics and hidden underbellies. The photographer’s subjects have included the skeletons of buildings under construction, and the infrastructure of New York City’s underground tunnels and water systems. At the MIT Museum, his exhibition, “Time Machines,” captures the technological sublime of telescopes, particle accelerators, spectrometers, and ion traps that comprise the trappings of modern physics. In his depictions of gears, cogs, and tunnels, Greenberg recasts the most utilitarian machinery of the world — often literally nuts and bolts — as objects of formal beauty. He captures the striking materiality of equipment without evaporating any of their mystery.
Greenberg collaborated with MIT professor of physics Janet Conrad to get access to these far-flung sites. Then a professor at Columbia, Conrad — who Greenberg found by paging through a university course catalog — gave him a tour of Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois, which soon had other physics labs clamoring to participate. Greenberg would eventually criss-cross the globe to visit labs in Japan, Italy, Switzerland, Argentina, and Antarctic.
Greenberg feels an affinity for the work that experimental physicists do. “The average perception of what a physicist does is that they sit at a desk and write formulas or they just sit and think,” he says, “But lots of the people I worked with were experimental physicists, so they would be down on their knees with gaffer tape and tin foil and masking tape and string. They would be getting their hands dirty.”
For Conrad, the project was a welcome opportunity to show contemporary physics at work. Her object of study is the feisty yet mysterious neutrino, a fundamental particle that makes up the universe while defying some of our most basic ideas of how matter works. “I love my particle,” Conrad says. And early in her career, she says, she decided to make it famous. Throughout her career, she’s led various science outreach projects, including collaborating with MIT Artist-in-Residence Jennifer West on her film “I Heart Neutrinos.” With her research team, Conrad conducts experiments to discover how much neutrinos weigh, which may lead physics beyond the Standard Model to expand our understanding of how the universe evolved.
Now the collaboration which began in New York has now come full circle with the photographs making their premiere at the MIT Museum. Greenberg’s work is a good fit for MIT, an institution with a great tradition of science photography tracing back to the 1930s, from Harold “Doc” Edgerton to Berenice Abbott. “I feel like I’m just following everything she did,” Greenberg remarks about Abbott, referencing Abbott’s early street scenes which were then followed by the pioneering science photographs taken at MIT.
Students from Conrad’s course on science writing then chose a photograph from “Time Machines” that they found inspiring, investigated the “backstory” of the experiment behind the photograph and wrote an accompanying essay featured in the exhibition catalogue.
“They are all products of interesting engineering, design, architecture and technology,” Greenberg says of the laboratories. Like his images of the buried landscapes of underground sewage tunnels, these photographs also document what is at once all-pervasive and yet visually inaccessible. Just as ordinary citizens often feel, rather than see, the effects of city infrastructure, so physicists perceive the nature of atomic and subatomic matter indirectly. The laboratories in which these experiments take place, too, are often hidden, walled off from public view or buried deep beneath the ground. “These are places you don’t get to see and they are detecting things you don’t get to see,” Greenberg says.
Time Machines is currently on view at the MIT Museum September 13, 2013 – March 30, 2014 in the Kurtz Gallery for Photography.