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The Poetry Of Clouds And The Hard Tools Of Science

Since its invention, photography has helped researchers understand clouds. Now, Switzerland's Fotomuseum Winterthur explores the link between the science and symphony of clouds.

Evening cloud formation in southern France
Evening cloud formation in southern France
Caroline Stevan

ZURICH -- A parrot. An elf. A submarine. Stratus, fibratus, cirrocumulus. Some people, when looking at clouds, imagine forms and beings. Others search for the right cloud name. Since the invention of photography, scientists have used the medium to help them classify clouds -- and with technological advances their knowledge of the sky has increased.

"Cloud Studies," an intriguing exhibition at the Fotomuseum Winterthur in Zurich, is organized in six sections, tracing the interplay of images and the advancement of science.

In the early days of photography, people would climb ladders with their cameras in hand to capture images of clouds. Albert Riggenbach, a Swiss astronomer, meteorologist and physicist, co-published the Atlas International Des Nuages (International Cloud Atlas) in 1896.

The exhibition at Winterthur's photography museum contians original photographs taken from the observatory on Mount Säntis in northeastern Switzerland -- cirrus clouds like wisps of smoke, wooly cirrocumulus clouds -- their names written elegantly by hand. Cumulostratus clouds are thicker, menacing; and then come the eccentric cumulus clouds. Flat altostratus clouds offer less fodder for the imagination.

A copy of the famous atlas is on view in a showcase, with its plates and Riggenbach's texts. Until the appearance of this book, clouds were described using names and drawings, making it easy to confuse them. It was Riggenbach's hope to offer Helvetic rigor as a counterpoint to the untrammeled fantasy of the sky. "I'm fascinated by the fact that such soft, beautiful imagery can be the result of scientific work. That paradox is why I created the exhibition," says "Cloud Studies' curator Helmut Völter.

The show's second section presents the research of Scotsman Ralph Abercromby. Passionately interested in meteorology, Abercromby went around the world twice, photographing clouds in Tenerife, London and Madeira, keeping his results in an album. In Winterthur, a facsimile of the album sits atop an old wooden desk, with a device that focuses light on whichever pages visitors wish to examine.

From the cockpit to the satellite

"Cloud Studies," already shown in Germany in 2010, successfully marries the anecdotal with the scientific. Says Helmut Völter: "I chose to group each section of the show around a specific researcher or publication as a way of making the different objectives very clear." He also notes that it took him two years to gather together all the original material from libraries, archives, and the families of photographers.

The third section of the exhibition is organized around World War I, when pilots took pictures of clouds from the cockpit. The objective was to deepen the understanding of clouds to increase flight safety, but the resulting images are like bathing in lakes or oceans of clouds, or seemingly caught in the tentacles of a magnificent albeit threatening octopus. The earth is below, smooth and nearly insignificant; the usual earth sky perspective is reversed. German pilots published a manual in 1917 called Wolken im Luftmeer (Clouds in a Sea of Air).

During this time – and the subject of the fourth section of the exhibition – French researchers were working on a system of clouds, which they viewed as bands that were connected. Their images encompass huge patches of sky. Published in 1923, Les systèmes nuageux shows depressions and storms. On the wall, images representing the front, edge, body or back of a cloud ensemble are positioned like pieces of a mosaic. Some individual formations stand out: a cirrostratus that looks like a mystical being, a fractocumulus resembling an elephant.

The fifth part of the exhibition is devoted to the Japanese scientist Masanao Abe, and uses film. In the 1920s and 1930s, Abe recorded weather movements from the top of Mount Fuji. The result is hypnotic, a seductive dance of gathering and dispersing clouds around the imperturbable peak.

Finally, the last part of "Cloud Studies' shows the first images taken by an American satellite in the 1960s. Tiros I photographed cyclones, brooding storms. Over hundreds of square miles, we can track specific meteorological phenomena, but also something a bit less exact: the moods of the sky.

"Cloud Studies – The scientific view of the sky," Fotomuseum Winterthur, until Feb. 12.

"Wolkenstudien, Cloud Studies, Etudes des nuages," Helmut Völter, Spector Books.

Read the original article in French

Photo - Ben Witte

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