Monday, March 5, 2007

Henig: Picturing Practices

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Picturing Practices

From: Robin Marantz Henig
Date: Mon, 5 Mar 2007 10:46:11 -0500 (EST)

My experience with pictures is a little different. I'm a science journalist,so my metier is words, and the pictures are added by others (and then only when my work appears in magazines, never in books). A few of the articles I wroterecently for The New York Times Magazine were illustrated with photographs byNicholas Nixon, whose sensibilities about the human form must somehow be inharmony with mine. These articles were about difficult topics -- one was about our quest for a good death through hospice and palliative care, the other wasabout a speeded-up aging disease called progeria -- and I thought that I approached them directly and honestly, just as Nick's stark black-and-whitephotos did. But several readers told me that they were really put off by thephotographs, and a few said they had even decided not to read the article because they were there. A friend who was dying of cancer saw my article about death and wanted to read it, but she specifically asked for a version of the piece that she could read that was text-only, without the disturbing photos. I think this reveals the emotional wallop of visual images, which far outstrips whatever it is we writers can do with words alone.

(image) Nicholas Nixon, from a series of photographs that accompanied the article, "Will We Ever Arrive at the Good Death?" by Robin Marantz Henig (The New York Times Magazine, August 7, 2005)

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Adrienne Klein said...

Our Science & the Arts series ( at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York recently presented a reading of selected scenes from Carl Djerassi’s play Phallacy. Djerassi’s article in American Theatre ( includes this exchange from the play, between a chemist and art historian in a feud over the correct attribution of an art object.

REX (chemist): Unpredictability is what science is all about…

REGINA (art historian): Is it really? And even if it is, then why doesn’t that teach you humility…rather than arrogance? And why not recognize the importance of visual beauty…a concept that barely exists in your chemical world.

If a historical object also possesses beauty, that is value added; indeed it may be the significant value of the object. Objective documentation of scientific observations can have beauty as an ally, as in the arrestingly beautiful images that illustrate science by Felice Frankel ( Her representations of science draw readers to the text. By contrast, science writing can, as Robin Marantz Henig notes, suffer by association with unsettling imagery.

I will make a leap here between the assertion that unpleasant images turned Marantz Henig’s reader off, and the claim that Djerassi cites, that audiences go to the theatre not to be educated but to be entertained. Djerassi offers the challenge “why not use drama to smuggle (with a substantial dose of theatricality) important information generally not available on the stage into the minds of a general public?” Certainly theatre has often been employed to tremendous effect in conveying political sentiments; why not science-related ideas as well? Djerassi is accomplishing this in his plays and his new initiative for science theatre in the classroom.

Carl Djerassi said...

From Carl Djerassi

Thanks for the compliment, but the somewhat defensive nature of the quote from my AMERICAN THEATRE January 2007 article is really based on the all too frequent utterly dismissive attitude of non-scientific theatre people claiming to do science concerning even the slightest whiff of didactic motivation.

In a recent book review (C. Djerassi, PHYSICS TODAY, Feb. 2007, pp. 63-64), I quote some smart aleck wisecracks from the French theatre director Jean-Francois Peyret, who has tickled the fancy of some academic theatre scholars enamored by postmodernist approaches to science theatre. Here are two examples:

(1) If audience members want to know whether Heisenberg was good or bad, they have access to the scientific debates... they don't have to see a play.

(2) We don't have to do night schoool... We do not do scientific theater, we in fact do not even know what that means."

It is this kind of puerile braggadocio that unfortunately carries all too much weight in many theatres and thus influences also prospective playwrights..

Carl Djerassi