Particle physicists' quest to replicate the hypothetical Higgs boson has never looked as promising as it does this week. And it probably has never looked as good as it does in Stanley Greenberg: Time Machines, just published by Hirmer. Having gained access to a variety of labs on five continents, the Brooklyn-based artist has taken ravishing, even intimate photographs of the objects they were built to house—the enormous, phenomenally complex machines used to study subatomic particles. Approaching his subject in the spirit of detailed research, Greenberg achieves a quirky but convincing reconciliation of the imperatives of artistic and scientific investigation.
These accelerators, colliders, detectors and spectrometers instigate high-energy collisions among particles and measure the results, with the ultimate aim of filling in blanks in the Standard Model and providing a unified "theory of everything." Included in Greenberg's book is YE-1, Compact Muon Solenoid, Large Hadron Collider, CREN, Switzerland, 2006, one of several photographs of the lab, recently in the news, where scientists are conducting experiments at the forefront of the search for Higgs.
Form follows function in these underground facilities, and in the book's eighty full-page halftones Greenberg, a former Guggenheim Fellow whose previous books include a study of hidden urban infrastructure titled Invisible New York, portrays that functionality with a seasoned eye for composition, tonality and, as in Ion trap, EXO-200, Stanford University, Palo Alto, California, 2006, the play of artificial light on manufactured surfaces.
Without human figures or familiar objects to contextualize these images, some of these photos have an ambiguous sense of scale. Whether the equipment in TGC wheel, ATLAS muon spectrometer, Large Hadron Collider, CERN, Switzerland, 2006 is six feet across or sixty is impossible to discern from Greenberg's record of it. To a non-specialist some are nearly abstract, such as Test beam muon detector, Fermilab, Illinois, 2006, with its geometrically precise but arcane hardware, and bits of tape bearing cryptic notations, distributed across an inky ground.
Working with a 4x5 view camera, Greenberg himself is a consummate technician; the tonal control of Clean room, LIGO, Louisiana, 2008 conveys a tactile sense of gleaming metal foils, light-absorbing concrete floors and atmospherically layered sheets of nearly transparent plastic. These concerns inform Greenberg's earlier Waterworks, which documents New York City's extensive water distribution system, but the artist's technical skills show the refinement that experience brings.
In his dogged documentation of the hardware of particle physics, Greenberg follows in the tradition of photographic typology of which Bernd and Hilla Becher were preeminent contemporary practitioners. A few images, such as 15-foot bubble chamber, Fermilab, Illinois, 2006, even bear a formal resemblance to the Bechers' work. But, frame-by-frame, Greenberg's photographs are much more varied, at times even recalling Lee Friedlander's pictorial overload, as in TIGRESS detector, TRIUMF, British Columbia, Canada, 2008.
In the end, these may best be seen as portraits of some of the most important and valuable apparatus in science, akin to the faded tradition of "candid" shots of celebrities in their domestic surroundings—not poolside but underground, beyond reach of the ordinary cosmic rays with which the earth's surface is constantly bombarded. With these effortlessly glamorous photographs, Stanley Greenberg emerges as the Slim Aarons of modern technology.