Mystery machines

The photographic allure of big science

Liquid helium tanks, Japan’s Proton Accelerator Research Complex, 2008
Stanley Greenberg
Liquid helium tanks, Japan’s Proton Accelerator Research Complex, 2008

Photographers have traditionally had a soft spot for technology. Of course they have. A machine is what provides their livelihood. Photographers as different as Margaret Bourke-White and Lee Friedlander, Paul Strand and Bernd and Hilla Becher have made memorable, even magnificent, images of turbines, automobile interiors, movie cameras, storage tanks.

Perhaps the most famous examples of photography’s machine aesthetic are Charles Sheeler's pictures of Ford’s River Rouge plant. Taken in 1927, they are more than just remarkable images (which they are) of unprecedented industrial might (which it was). Sheeler's photographs both document and celebrate the spirit of an age. The automobiles Ford manufactured were transforming the lives of not just those who made them but, even more, those who would own them. The factory and the assembly line uniquely served as engines of progress and emblems of modern life.

The River Rouges of today long ago left southern Michigan for southern China. In the post-industrial West, their equivalents aren’t factories but scientific research sites like Fermilab, in Illinois; CERN's Large Hadron Collider, beneath the Franco-Swiss border; or IceCube, the neutrino-detection facility at the South Pole. They are as much monuments of this era as the pyramids or medieval cathedrals or River Rouge were of theirs.


Yet how many people know what they even look like? Forget about understanding what’s done there. Terms like “dipole magnets,” “toroid magnets,” “bubble chambers,” “cryostats,” “spectrometers” (of all sorts), “ion traps” possess an opaque poetry--and the opacity doesn’t end there.

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Part of the fascination of this technology is its cool aloofness. To the observer, these machines attempting to delve the secrets of the universe have more in common with the monolith in “2001” than they do with any sort of factory or other industrial-era facility, and the handfuls of personnel who maintain them are more like priests tending a shrine than the hundreds, even thousands, of workers swarming industrial assembly lines. The beauty of such machines owes much to design--their cleanliness and wondrous functionality. It owes even more, perhaps, to the sense of mystery that surrounds them.

In his book, “Time Machines,” the photographer Stanley Greenberg goes at least some way in lessening their mystery--and, if anything, enhancing their beauty. A contemporary Sheeler on an epic scale, he traveled 80,000 miles to photograph scientific facilities on five continents. The results are alternately astonishing and astonishingly mundane.

A row of bicycles at Japan’s Proton Accelerator Research Complex look far more technologically advanced than the liquid helium tanks behind them. The ladder in the middle of an H1 detector at the German Electron Synchrotron in Hamburg is a light-bulb joke waiting to happen. Incomparably more sophisticated than that ladder, the shield for a large acceptance spectrometer at the Jefferson National Laboratory in Newport News, Va., looks like the world’s largest astronaut helmet.

A bubble chamber at Fermilab brings us back full photographic circle: It could be a refugee from one of the Bechers’ gridded industrial-structure arrangements. The machines may change, and change radically, but photographers’ reverence for them remains constant.

Mark Feeney, a member of the Globe staff, can be reached at