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"Cloud Studies: The Scientific View of the Sky" at the Fotomuseum in Winterthur
Albert Riggenbach, Cumulus, Basle, around 1895. Gelatin-silver print from a tableau with the same name© Swiss National Museum, Zurich.
WINTERTHUR.- The English pharmacist and meteorologist Luke Howard wrote in 1802 in the preface to his manuscript On the Modification of Clouds: “Clouds are subject to certain distinct modifications, produced by the general causes which affect all the variations of the atmosphere; they are commonly as good visible indicators of the operation of these causes, as is the countenance of the state of a person’s mind or body.” Eighty years later, meteorologists had still not reached a consensus on how to classify, label, and read the forms of clouds. It was during this time that scientists first began using photography to record and measure clouds. With its help, they attempted to gain precise and accurate images that would provide insight on the interplay between clouds and the atmosphere and which could be used to create and convey a classification of cloud forms.

The exhibition CLOUD STUDIES – The Scientific View of the Sky presents six stages of meteorological cloud photography, from its infancy in the 1880s – in Switzerland with the first images by Albert Riggenbach photographed from Mount Säntis – up to the newspaper images in the United States that were captured by the first weather satellites in the 1960s. At the beginning of the 20th century, cloud formations and cloud systems were investigated foremost by the military and led to fundamental insights into interrelated weather situations.

CLOUD STUDIES – The Scientific View of the Sky at the Fotomuseum is a rich collection of photographs, notes, records and atlases from diverse research sources and depicts the origins of contemporary weather forecasting. Each of the six parts of the exhibition represents a different scientific and photographic view of clouds while reflecting on the “history of the gaze” as well as the history of the medium with its various photographic mechanisms and reproductive technologies.

An additional theme running throughout the exhibition is the development of science and its varying ideas about clouds. The protagonists and working methods change over time—from the ambitious, wealthy amateur Ralph Abercromby to the anonymous teams of weather satellite technicians. Whereas Riggenbach still wished to capture images of ideal cloud types, the view of the cloud constellations and their chaotic systems expands with the introduction of film, at the latest, and with the constant recording and measuring capacities of digital cameras, which transmit images to earth, where they are evaluated and publicized.

Conceived by curator Helmut Völter (Leipzig), the exhibition CLOUD STUDIES – The Scientific View of the Sky explores the question as to how all these changes influenced the intentions, concepts, and technical developments associated with images of the clouds. It shows how similar or dissimilar photographs of clouds can be, when photographed according to individual specifications. Ultimately it is left to the viewer to decide if and how scientific cloud photography differs from related and frequently published motifs from the history of art and photography.

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