Back in 1995, NASA pointed the Hubble Space Telescope at a small section of the Eagle Nebula (M16) in the constellation Serpens 7,000 light years away. The image it produced, known as The Pillars of Creation, is probably one of the first images that spring to mind when talking about astrophotography. The public was predictable thrilled with this and other images coming from the telescope (images like the Hubble Deep Field). And thanks partly to their public-domain status, these images find their way into all kinds of usages. The Pillars of Creation, being among the most famous, can be found on almost any object, from skateboards to aprons:
Simply put people love this image. But, as this article points out, the famous pillars don’t exist anymore and were actually destroyed by a supernova that took place about 6,000 years ago; the light of their destruction just hasn’t made its way to Earth just yet. So what does it mean that the famous pillars in the photograph we all know were obliterated about 5,820 years before photography was even invented? And should this have any bearing on how we should think about the images we make here on Earth?
Part of what’s fascinating about images like this to me is the fact that they visibly record the incomprehensible. The first hurdle in trying to comprehend what you’re seeing in these pictures is the scale of the distance involved. I would argue that even conceptualizing the amount of empty space in our own solar system is pretty much impossible. The website If the Moon were only 1 pixel does as good a job as any at trying to parse this amount of space down into a human scale, but still. You. Just. Keep. Scrolling. The distance between Mars and Jupiter alone is incomprehensibly far when you put it in human terms like miles or kilometers. And if the scale of our own miniscule solar system isn’t mind-bending enough, think about it this way: When the Hubble revisited the Pillars of Creation earlier this year, NASA published this side-by-side comparison of the structures 20 years apart:
Besides the higher resolution provided by the updated camera Hubble got in May of 2009, it looks pretty similar, right? Some tiny differences maybe, but nothing drastic. Now realize that, according to this NASA report from January, parts of these clouds of gas are moving through space at about 450,000 miles per hour. For 20 years. That’s 10.8 million miles per day. Over 20 years? That’s 78,840,000,000 miles. And it looks almost exactly the same. That’s how far away we are; something can shift by billions of miles and look pretty much the same. It makes the whole notion of human scale seem a little inflated (cue Carl Sagan). What we see is impossibly abstracted from anything human. Jorge Luis Borges’ short story On Exactitude in Science comes to mind as a vehicle for thinking about of abstraction and representation of physical spaces:
… In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.
The other difficulty in thinking about these photographs — which proceeds as a result of these huge distances — is that we have what equates to an exaggerated, 2-dimensional view of these objects and events; we can’t stick our head out far enough to get a true sense of depth, and our “eye” the Hubble is effectively a cyclops. As an example: if you’ve ever been stuck behind a really tall person in a full movie theater and can’t change seats, you can probably understand this dilemma. Additionally, one of the characteristics of a long, telephoto lens is that it compresses the space that it records. Now attempt to complete the oxymoronic task of imagining that effect on an incomprehensibly massive scale. This gif is a great example I use to show students how the same scene looks vastly different depending on the lens used (you can read more about how this was made here):
This Chrome experiment, 10,000 Stars, is a great if limited way of showing the vastness of the Milky Way in 3 dimensions. And by using the MUSE instrument as part of the Very Large Telescope, NASA and the ESO do have the ability to image the Pillars in 3 dimensions: this video published just a few weeks ago give you a sense of what it can show us about the Pillars of Creation:
You might already be familiar with the fact that many of the images we see of celestial objects are composites made up of processed monochrome images; it’s also the subject of artist Adam Ferris’ project 500 Years Away. And a more in-depth explanation of what is behind Hubble’s color images can be found here. Essentially the “natural-looking” images from space are filtered and compressed versions of wide imaging data sets that sit within the spectrum of visible light our eyes can see. This manipulation of photographic data goes beyond just color, such as these recently re-processed images from one of the Russian Venera probes sent to Venus in the early 1980s:
It looked a little more like this in its raw and unprocessed state:
So what does this have to do with photography here on Earth, then? Part of NASA’s primary mission is “to reach for new heights and reveal the unknown so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind” and it seems obvious enough that photographs play a big role in that mission. Or, more precisely, photographic data that are gathered from a immobile perspective, and then manipulated and massaged into a more recognizable form. Not in an effort to deceive, but as the mission statement says, to “reveal the unknown”. I think we’re doing the same thing when we make art. Of the many definitions out there, one of my favorite definitions of art is that it reveals the hidden aspects of the familiar. How else can we do that but though forced perspective, manipulation; by shifting the balance between foreign and familiar? These images from deep space manage to shrink the massive distances that separate us from the rest of the universe. To me, art functions in much the same way, only on a more recognizably human scale.
A few years ago, I started giving an assignment to my students; usually it’s the very first assignment of the semester. I send out a pdf of 10 photographs from a wide variety of sources. I provide no context; titles or supporting text is cropped or removed, and the students see nothing but the photograph. After a few basic remarks on formal terms like composition, lighting, focus, etc., I ask my students to look at these decontextualized images, and formulate a written response based on on what they see, where they might expect to find such an image, and whether they think it is even worth discussing in the first place. Ideally, they’ve never seen any of the photographs before. I also ask them to please not do a Google image search because providing the “right” answers is not the point. The point is, of course, to initiate the process of investigating and unpacking the internal logic of a photograph; I want to know what they see in the most literal sense of the word.
Art thrives on context, and good art sets up complicated relationships between context and content. Stripping out the peripheral information about a photograph and handing it to my students is partly an experiment on my part to see what sticks when all that’s left is the image. If I tell my students that I am showing them the work of an artist, they are already primed to see and respond to it in a particular way depending on what assumptions they carry about art — good or bad. Some of the images might look like they could be art but aren’t; I’ve used abstract NASA satellite imagery of the moon prior to the Apollo program, and more recently the Rosetta orbiter’s selfie from last year:
I always look forward to hearing what my students have to say about the work from Corey Arcangel’s Photoshop Gradient Demonstrations:
Usually the responses to this work range from, “I think this would be in a book about color theory,” to “This would probably be found in a hippy dorm room.” Fair enough. Which brings me to the picture at the top of the post, from Stephen Shore’s American Surfaces. It probably should come as no surprise that Stephen Shore is having a good time on Instagram. But the fact that he is, and the fact that the my students — who know nothing about his work— echo the obviousness of this connection is oddly striking. Here are a some of the responses this photograph has gotten over the past few years:
“This image of breakfast would probably be found on a social network.”
“This photograph looks like it would be found in someone’s phone.”
“Overall, I think it is a boring image.”
“Due to the poor quality, I’d probably find this image on social media.”
“I would expect to find this on Instagram, because it would look better if cropped to a square.”
This last one was especially good, because the student drew the square frame onto the printout that you see at the top of this post. And yes, some of these responses might seem funny on the surface, but I think they show with razor sharpness the weight that we give to the context of images when we decide to call them art. I’m not sure if it’s cliché to say that I learn from my students, but…I do. A lot. Especially when it comes to talking about art. Talking about art with artists or with experienced art students is easy; on some level, we all take the value of art for granted. But starting the conversation with just the image —with ONLY what you can see — is a valuable tool in reminding myself as a teacher and an artist that taking the value of things for granted is the cardinal sin of art making.
And by the way, if you were wondering, of course Stephen Shore take pictures of his food like anyone else. But there are only a couple, and this one of a mutton chop is his 3rd least-liked image (but please note the comments on it). Somehow, Stephen Shore’s food pictures on Instagram zipping past his followers without being liked seems a little weird considering this, this, and this to name a few. Don’t worry though, his photo of chicken fried steak did considerably better in the likes department. I tagged him in a shot of my students comment with the drawn-on crop marks and he liked it. That’s good enough for me.
I’ll leave you with this response to John Baldassari’s Wrong, which makes absolutely no sense to any of my students.
“This picture is not worth discussing because it is too simple.”