When Alan Wolf challenged his engineering students to get artistic earlier this year, he wasn't sure what to expect. As disciples of math and science, these students were used to knowing what the outcome should be for any given project. What would happen when he equipped them cameras and set them loose on the streets of New York City?
Wolf, physics chair and acting dean of The Cooper Union's Albert Nerken School of Engineering in Manhattan, offered his inaugural "Scientific Photography" class in January primarily as a means to encourage budding Cooper Union engineers to tackle complex technical projects. "The first day as I'm standing in front of the students, making up the course as I'm speaking, I said, 'Oh, by the way, each of you will be responsible for a small artistic portfolio consisting of 12 images,'" he says. "I encouraged them to bring their technical mind-set to bear on whatever their artistic theme was."
Admittedly, he didn't expect the students to turn in groundbreaking artwork. "Twenty years ago when I would ask students in a big lecture class how many of them have taken and developed photos in a darkroom, it was two thirds of the class," Wolf says. "These days, nobody does wet photography in a darkroom. People take photos with their cell phones, not with a decent camera."
The artistic assignment was meant to complement the students' primary workload for the class, which required each of them to complete a technical project. One such project included designing and building a thermal-imaging camera, while another project saw students create their own high dynamic range video camera. In fact, although the students were very excited about doing the technical projects, they objected a bit to having to do artistic portfolios. "They had no self confidence that they knew how to make art," Wolf says.
Much to Wolf's surprise and immense gratification, his students produced captivating images that expressed a mix of latent artistic creativity mixed with an engineer's ingenuity.
These portfolios are on exhibit at The Cooper Union December 2-8.
View a slide show of images from the exhibit.