Stefan Probst studied History at the University of Vienna (diploma thesis on the history of historiography in Vienna in the 1920s and 1930s) and lectured in Political Science and International Development at the University of Vienna between 2009 and 2014. His research interests include: the history of historiography in the 19th and 20th centuries, science and the state, visual and material cultures of science, global histories of science.
Research project: Chronophotography and cinematography in the life sciences in the early twentieth century
The scientific uses of cinematography in the early 20th century were far more diverse and widespread than the historiography of science has so far acknowledged, ranging from microbiology to psychology and ethology, physics and astronomy to criminal anthropology. Taking up Jimena Canales' cue of a "cinematographic turn" in the sciences around 1900, my research project aims to explore the different uses of film in experimental biological research between 1900 and the 1920s. While scientific cinematography in disciplines like ethnology was mainly used for optical documentation and as a visual archive, in the life sciences cinematographic instruments and media became part of experimental settings and practices. They thus enabled new research questions, facts and evidences about processes in time (growth, development, metabolism, reproduction), while displacing older, static means of representation as well as concepts supported by those visual conventions.
(1) Building on a number of historical case studies, my research project explores the role cinematography played in the "experimentalization of life", in that it allowed capturing biological phenomena through a dynamic, time-based medium. The research project therefore focuses not primarily on the analytical decomposition of movement into a series of discontinuous, static images such as in e.g. the experimental physiology of E.-J. Marey, but on the (instrumentally mediated) cinematographic reconstruction of movement, i.e. the dynamics of organic processes. Furthermore, cinematography allowed the "manipulation of the time of observation compared to the time of the experiment" (Landecker) and via slow-motion and time-lapse unveiled movement that was otherwise imperceptible. Cinematographic instruments and media thus were more than simply passive recording devices, but actively involved in the production of biological knowledge.
(2) The visualization of biological processes in an artificial velocity and reversible time also points to the fact that what was involved in scientific cinematography was not simply mechanical representation (in the mimetic sense). My research project therefore also asks how the epistemic status of scientific moving images was discussed in the disciplines, especially in relation to the epistemic ideal of "mechanical objectivity".
(3) The particular visual qualities of scientific film ("Anschaulichkeit") also suggested its pedagogic usability in academic teaching, as well as in contexts of science popularization. Cinematography was used for instruction and demonstration purposes, and thus contributed to the plausibilization and stabilization of biological knowledge, but also to training a certain form of "experimental looking" that could not be communicated via static images. The visual rhetoric of popular science films made use of a number of techniques in order to convey a "scientific gaze" and - in the context of the rise of entertainment cinema - to navigate the tensions between "observation and spectatorship".