Wilhelm Röntgen’s radiograph of his wife’s hand taken in 1895
Wilhelm Röntgen’s radiograph of his wife’s hand, taken in 1895, just after the German physicist had discovered how to create and use X-rays © SSPL/Science Museum/Getty

In 1895, the great German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen, who had just discovered X-rays, used them to make an image of his wife Anna Bertha’s ghostly hand wearing a ring. On seeing her skeletal fingers, she exclaimed: “I have seen my death.”

Photography and science have been intertwined from the beginning. The camera has become an essential tool in all fields of research, while the development of photography has directly spurred scientific progress.

The early efforts of photographic pioneers to fix permanent images contributed enormously to chemistry, as they discovered how compounds react with light, and to physics, as they developed the optics required for sharp focusing. Later researchers pushed photography far beyond the narrow confines of what we can see with our naked eyes, to the vast reaches of the electromagnetic spectrum at wavelengths longer and shorter than visible light — such as X-rays.

There was more truth in Anna Bertha’s remark than she would have realised. Although there is no evidence that X-rays hastened her own death in 1919, the extensive use of radiography in the early 20th century to see into the body for fun as well as for medical diagnosis shortened the lives of a large — if unknown — number of people, in whom the high-energy radiation triggered genetic changes that would lead to cancer decades later. It took a long time for medical authorities to appreciate the dangers of X-ray imaging. As recently as the 1950s, shops in the US and Europe used “fluoroscopes” that enabled children to X-ray their feet inside new shoes, essentially as a gimmick to attract customers.

As well as extending the wavelengths at which they could capture images, scientists expanded their imaging horizons by magnification. Microscopes show the tiniest details of molecules down to one-billionth of a metre. Telescopes can reveal galaxies billions of light-years away on the furthest fringes of the universe.

The space age gave astronomers additional ways to observe details of distant objects, both by sending probes to explore the solar system and by putting telescopes in orbit, where they can take pictures with clarity unachievable on Earth beneath the smearing distortion of our atmosphere. The remarkable images recorded by the Hubble Space Telescope over the past 25 years will be surpassed by the $8bn James Webb Telescope due for launch in 2018.

For life on Earth, however, the most important impact of space photography has been to look back at our planet. Two pictures taken by Apollo astronauts on lunar missions — “Earthrise” in 1968 and “Blue Marble” in 1972 — had a huge influence on the burgeoning environmental movement. Today, remote sensing satellites play an essential observing role, from tracking storms to monitoring agriculture.

The photographic boundaries between science and art have always been fuzzy. Take the weirdly named Eadweard Muybridge, one of the greatest Victorian photographers. His studies of animals and people in motion, particularly the sequences of running horses and men, contributed valuable biological information about animal gait. They are also visually stunning proto-movies.

Earthrise, taken by the Apollo 8 astronauts on December 24 1968
Earthrise, taken by the Apollo 8 astronauts after entering lunar orbit and revealed to the world on December 24 1968 © Nasa

A more recent example is the Swedish medical photographer Lennart Nilsson, now 93, who took us on unprecedented journeys through the human body during the 1960s. On the way, he showed the public for the first time how the foetus develops inside the womb, as well as using endoscopy to illustrate the unexpected beauty of our innards.

Most of the fine contemporary photographers featured in this special issue of the FT Weekend Magazine lie towards the artistic end of the science-art continuum. They are inspired by science or medicine but do not take pictures directly for scientific purposes.

David Fathi mines the photographic archive at Cern, the international physics research centre outside Geneva, for evidence of the Pauli Effect. This half-serious, half-joking quest examines the legend of Wolfgang Pauli not only as a founder of quantum theory but as a mysterious source of accidents and experimental failures.

The viewer of Fathi’s work has to decide what is real and what is fabricated. Robert Zhao Renhui, also known as the Institute of Critical Zoologists, asks similar questions about the living world. Wonderful creatures populate his pictures but how are they created?

Foetus from Lennart Nilsson’s 'A Child Is Born' series
Foetus, sixteen weeks, from Swedish medical photographer Lennart Nilsson’s 'A Child Is Born' series, published in 1965 © Lennart Nilsson

Two other photographers look at disease. Maja Daniels brings strange beauty to the journey of a patient who decided to pre-empt cancer, while Thilde Jensen’s “Canaries” are hauntingly sad views of people who, like her, suffer from severe Environmental Illness caused by human civilisation.

Photography can also illuminate what some people regard as another malign manifestation of science and technology: surveillance. In Trevor Paglen’s pictures you may see sinister threat, reassuring security or a mixture of the two.

Disturbing in a different way is Maija Tammi’s focus on the inevitable biological process of decay. Her images of a rabbit carcass rotting away relate to forensic science, for which decomposition rates provide important evidence.

As photography approaches its bicentenary and new imaging techniques appear, the partnership between science and art should find ever more fertile ground.

Clive Cookson is the FT’s science editor

Photographs: SSPL/Science Museum/Getty; Nasa; Lennart Nilsson

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