//Making the World:
Pictures and Science in Modern China

Section of a Lily Bud

Arthur E. Smith
Photograph. Source: Richard Kerr, Nature through Microscope and Camera (Toronto: The Musson Book Company Limited, [1909?]), Fig. 39.
Collection Identification:
The University of Alberta Libraries

This image of a transverse section of a lily bud was debuted to The Royal Society in London in 1904, and later reproduced in Nature Through Microscope and Camera. The introduction presents the bud and other photographs as scientifically valuable, while vehemently insisting that endeavors of science do not contest the authority of the church. To demonstrate the two were compatible, the aesthetic qualities of the natural world were often attributed to God, acting as proof of the divine creative power. An excerpt from the introduction implies this Godly presence:

Here is something more than a mere crystallization of like particles from a liquid of a specific composition, wonderful though that process is…Should we not rather accept them in all their beauty and with all their evidence of design as an indication that there is a designer? (p. 8)

Fusing specificty with wonder within the composition is meant to resolve the tension of religion’s issues with scientific experimentation. As the attempt to harmonize the two is drawn to the reader’s attention, two important aspects of the image begin to disappear. The lily and the agency of Smith as the photographer wilt away:

Of the lily no description is necessary. A glance at the section of its bud shows an amount of geometrical arrangement that is, in no small degree, surprising. Triangles, circles, hexagons and even trapeziums find a place in its small dimensions. Minute cellular tissue is to be seen in all portions of its structure. (p. 133)

The lily’s description is abandoned in favor of emphasis upon structural symmetry. The term “arrangement” implies intent, but it is not an acknowledgement of human intent. This composition was revealed through the aesthetic decisions of Smith – which section of the flower bud to use, how to mount it, time of exposure – but attributed to God. Neither the preparation of the flower nor the decisions of the photographer are drawn into the conversation. Nowhere in the text mentions the preparation of the lily bud, or the agency of the man producing the image.

Is Smith an artist, a scientist recording data, a man proving the divinity of God? It appears in these images that the essence of the lily belongs not to a recognizable form, nor to scientific capture and description. Can the aesthetic be harmonized into a trinity with God and Science as the truth? Or will the aesthetic always take a subordinate position when discovering truth?

Justine Pelletier

Kerr, Richard. Nature through Microscope and Camera. Toronto: The Musson Book Company Limited, [1909?].