Lecturer, History; Research Associate, Yale Center for British Art
Fields of interest:
Cultural history of the physical sciences (18th-century to the present), science and visual culture, visual studies, material culture studies, history and theory of photography, modern British history
Chitra Ramalingam received her PhD in History of Science from Harvard University in 2009, after a BA in Physics and Philosophy from Harvard and an MPhil in History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Cambridge. She was a British Academy postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Cambridge before arriving at Yale. Her research and teaching range broadly across topics in science and visual culture, with a particular focus on the visual culture of physics (19th and 20th centuries); on 19th-century “ways of seeing” (especially optical illusions, optical toys, and the pre-history of cinema); photography in the scientific laboratory and the science museum; and changing discourses about photography as “art” or “science”.
Her first book, To See a Spark: Experiment and Visual Experience in Victorian Science (Yale University Press, forthcoming 2015), uses the history of a single scientific object, the electric spark, to track how physicists managed their visual experience in the laboratory. The book traces an unfamiliar path across the scientific and visual landscape of Victorian Britain, in which the physics laboratory is a key site for experimentation on human vision and for the exploration of new media like photography and cinema.
For the last few years her work has focused on the history and theory of early photography, exploring the reasons and context for the medium’s ambiguous place between science and art from 1839 to the present day. Does the history of photography look any different when we approach it from the perspective of the cultural history of science? She co-edited a volume of essays by art historians and historians of science on the photographic pioneer and Victorian gentleman of science William Henry Fox Talbot, William Henry Fox Talbot: Beyond Photography (Yale University Press, 2013), and co-curated an exhibition on Talbot in 2010 at the Wren Library, University of Cambridge. She is also working on the historiography of photography, reinterpreting the medium’s literary histories (rereading the earliest historical writings about photography against novel 19th-century genres of historical writing about science and technology) and its material histories (looking at the shifting place of photographs and photographic equipment in exhibitions and museums of science and industry). Finally, she is starting a book project on photography, experimentation, and the archive in the physical sciences.
To See a Spark: Experiment and Visual Experience in Victorian Science, Yale University Press, forthcoming 2015.
William Henry Fox Talbot: Beyond Photography (co-editor, with Mirjam Brusius and Katrina Dean), Studies in British Art, Yale University Press, 2013.
Selected articles and book chapters
“Introduction: Beyond Photography” (co-author with Mirjam Brusius) and “The most transitory of things: Talbot and the science of instantaneous vision,” chapters in William Henry Fox Talbot: Beyond Photography (above), Yale University Press, 2013.
“Natural history in the dark: seriality and the electric discharge in Victorian physics.” History of Science 48 (September 2010), 371-398.
“Fixing transience: photography and other images of time in 1830s London.” In Time and Photography, ed. Jan Baetens, Alex Streitberger, and Hilde Van Gelder, Leuven University Press, 2010.
Photography and the sciences
The cultural history of the laboratory