The Calculus of Jessica Wynne’s Chalkboard Photos

An FIT photography professor considers the fascinating visual abstractions expressed on the chalkboards of physicists and mathematicians. We have Professor Jessica Wynne’s remarkable project, her forthcoming book with Princeton University Press, “Do Not Erase.”

Shuai Wang, Columbia University.  Photo: Jessica Wynne

In September, 2019, Prof. Wynne’s work was given full-page treatment in The New York Times Science section, with Dennis Overbye’s article “Where Theory Meets Chalk, Dust Flies.” A flurry of top-tier media attention followed. We still wanted to know more, especially from a visual arts perspective. Here are a few of the things we discussed in our time together:

Q. Documentary photographers try to immerse themselves in the subject they’re covering. How do you do that when it’s the work of mathematics or physicists at a level most of us don’t comprehend?

JW: For me it’s not about understanding what’s on the board. I like that the symbols are mysterious and inaccessible. My interest is in the beautiful abstractions of the formulas. I also find a kinship with the mathematicians. We share similar intentions and are ultimately speaking the same language of discovery and creation.

David Gabai, Princeton University. Photo: Jessica Wynne

Q. Does a conventional classroom or professor’s office with a chalkboard have the proper lighting for you?

JW: For this series I have photographed in a variety of locations; classrooms, math department common rooms, offices, and in some cases the boards are outside, in the woods. In fact, I am planning a trip to a math institute in the Black Forest in Germany, and  I’ve heard that there are lots of boards in the forest.

Q. What are your lighting considerations? Flashes I don’t suppose work well with chalkboards. How do you get around that?

JW: I always use available lighting, preferably natural window light. I never use flash.

Sahar Khan, Columbia University. Photo: Jessica Wynne

Q. You seem to have a great appreciation for math and science. Where does it come from?

JW: My real appreciation for math and science came from doing this project. Also, my parents were both teachers at a boarding school, so I literally grew up in a classroom.

Jessica Wynne photographs the chalkboard of Philip Ording, Sarah Lawrence College. Photo: Philip Ording

Q. In one photograph (above), you’re using a tripod. The subject doesn’t move, so was this for depth of field or lighting purposes?

JW: It is actually for both depth of field and lighting purposes. I often do long exposures, which is why I need the tripod.

Institut des Hautes Etudes Scientifiques, outside Paris. Photo: Jessica Wynne

Q. There’s a stillness in the photos, but they’re not lifeless. Details you’ve captured, like the chalk dust and erasers make it feel as if there are people actively contemplating the equations. Were you aware of this dynamic?

JW: Yes, and I am glad that that comes through in the images.

Q. Are any of the chalkboards the work of multiple scientists?

JW: No, they are all done by individual mathematicians.

Helmut Hofer, Institute for Advanced Study. Photo: Jessica Wynne

Q. Do the scientists see the boards as having an aesthetic or only the equations?

JW: The mathematicians have a great aesthetic awareness.

The British Mathematician G.H. Hardy explores the aesthetics of mathematics in his 1940 essay “A Mathematician’s Apology”:

“A mathematician, like a painter or poet, is a maker of patterns…The beauty of a mathematical theorem depends a great deal on its seriousness, as even in poetry the beauty of a line may depend to some extent on the significance of the ideas that it contains…The mathematician’s patterns, like the painter’s or the poet’s, must be beautiful; the ideas, like the colors or the words, must fit together in a harmonious way. Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics.”

Geoffrey Rogers, FIT. Photo: Jessica Wynne

A. What from this project do you bring back to the classroom? And do you write on a chalkboard or blackboard in class?

JW  By watching over 100 mathematicians writing their formulas on the boards, I have witnessed this beautiful performative act that is stimulating and exciting for students and myself. As a professor, I have taken that excitement and hopefully brought it into my own classroom, because teaching is performative, and if you do not have that visual stimulus in the classroom students will get bored and disengage.

Wilfrid Gangbo, UCLA. Photo: Jessica Wynne

My own classrooms have whiteboards, which most schools have now. In fact, I recently had to cancel a trip to Cambridge and Oxford because all of the chalkboards were recently replaced with whiteboards.

“Do Not Erase,” will be released in Spring, 2021.  A solo show of the project will be held at Edwynn Houk Gallery in September, 2020.

Associate Professor Wynne has taught in the Photography department at FIT for 12 years. Among the courses she teaches are New Documentary Practices, Senior Photography Seminar, Creative Approaches in Photography and Photography 4: Project Development.

Images used with permission

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