Photographer Jessica Wynne '90 has beautifully documented the intricate lines of mathematical equations written on dusty chalkboards in universities across the globe for her new book, Do Not Erase, coming out in spring 2021 from Princeton University Press. One of Wynne's stunning images is featured on our cover.
Helmut Hofer, Institute for Advanced Study, 2019
THEY SAY THAT MATHEMATICS is a science, not an art. But when photographer Jessica Wynne '90 is involved, that science becomes beautiful art.
Wynne has documented the intricate lines of mathematical equations written on dusty chalkboards in universities across the globe for her new book, Do Not Erase, coming out this spring from Princeton University Press.
What is often overlooked or erased after a mathematics class is finished becomes beguiling in Wynne's photographs. There are swirls and circles, lines and dashes, and words written in different colored chalks that provide contrast to the deep gray and green chalkboards. Wynne's love of photography began early. The daughter of retired Taft teachers Gail and John Wynne—Gail taught art, John taught history and coached wrestling—she spent time in India during her time as a Taft student. "When I was 16 years old, I left Taft and spent a year at a boarding school in the Palani Hills of southern India—the same school that my mother had attended as a child. During that time away I discovered my love for photography," Wynne says. "I've always been fascinated by people and places that are unfamiliar to me, and having a camera gives me a kind of license to be curious," she adds.
She received an MFA from Yale University in 1999 and a BFA from San Francisco Art Institute in 1994. Exhibitions of her work have been held at the The Armory Show, Art Basel, Whitney Museum at Champion, Cleveland's Museum of Contemporary Art, Carriage Trade Gallery, and Nars Art Foundation. Other publications and collections that include her work are Turn Shake Flip: Celebrate Contemporary Art; 25 and Under: Photographers; the Morgan Library, Permanent Collection; and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Permanent Collection.
Wynne currently lives and works in New York City. She is a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology and is represented by Edwynn Houk Gallery. The mathematics project came about after she befriended neighbors on Cape Cod who are mathematicians.
"Every summer, I leave my home in New York City to live in a small beach town on the outer tip of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. For the past 10 years, I've become very close to my neighbors. The husband and wife are theoretical mathematicians—both teach at the University of Chicago—and over the years our conversations have opened me up to their mysterious world of higher mathematics," Wynne says.
"[Mathematicians'] imaginations guide them, and similar to an artist, they have the higher aspiration to create, discover, and find truth," she told Colossal magazine. Finding mathematicians who would allow her to photograph their equations and chalkboards became an adventure, she says.
"Initially my neighbors made a few introductions to their mathematician friends in New York City, and I began photographing their work at Columbia and the Courant Institute at New York University," she says. "Then I started to research and reach out to people on my own around the U.S., Brazil, and France. The mathematicians were very receptive and open to the project."
"Photographing their boards was a way for me to show some sort of psychological interiority of the mathematicians— like seeing a window into their minds, an interior portrait," she notes.
When Wynne began the project, she set some parameters to guide the process.
"I only wanted to photograph chalkboards— no glass or whiteboards—mainly for their inherent beauty and timeless analog nature. I asked the mathematicians to write or draw whatever they wanted on their boards," she explains. "Usually it ended up being something they were currently working on. I wanted to photograph in a literal, objective, straightforward way—showing the chalkboards as real objects—capturing their texture, erasure marks, and all forms of light reflecting off their surfaces."
Wynne doesn't try to explain the formulas that she's photographed. She leaves that to the mathematicians themselves, whose explanations are included in Wynne's book.
"The formulas and mathematical symbols are mysterious and inaccessible to me. And I don't mind not understanding," she says. "I actually like the tension of being seduced by the formal abstract beauty—the patterns, symmetry, and structure—while simultaneously feeling disconnected, not being able to fully access the meaning of their work. There is a friction of being drawn in and pushed away which is exciting to me. I may not know the specific meaning of the theorems, but I do know that beyond the surface they are ultimately revealing, or attempting to reveal, a universal truth."
Some may see mathematical equations as very dry work, but "for this series I felt a lot of emotion while shooting the chalkboards," Wynne says. "I felt the energy and intensity through looking at the mathematicians' theorems on the boards. There's a lot of drama and passion in the world of higher mathematics, and I felt that when shooting their work."