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Thursday, February 09, 2012

Artifacts and Artists: E. Kessler on Astronomical Photos

Posted by Darin Hayton on 02/09 at 12:23 PM

Elizabeth Kessler spoke recently at Bryn Mawr College on artist appropriations of astronomical photographs. In her talk, titled “Retaking the Universe: Appropriation and Astronomical Artifacts,” she explored the ways three different artists “appropriated” photographs of stars, redeveloping them or cropping them or converting them into pencil drawings. She focused on the work of Linda Connor, Thomas Ruff, and Vija Celmins.

The poster for Elizabeth Kessler’s lecture at Bryn Mawr College

Connor worked through the Lick Observatory photo archives selecting photographs made in the late 19th century by E. E. Barnard. Barnard’s photographs are, like most stellar photographs, emulsions on glass plates. Connor redeveloped the plates, leaving the traces of the edges. Kessler claimed that for Connor, these traces reminded us that what we see depends on practices and technologies. Connor’s approach echoed Barnard’s, who also considered his photographs as the product of a skilled technician and practice. This raises a number of questions: Connor, Kessler claimed, had to deny any authorship to the photos she was reproducing. Yet they were clearly the product of somebody, as Barnard’s very fingerprints and signature revealed.

Ruff acquired a set of negatives from the “Catalog of the Southern Sky.” Rather than reproduce whole negatives, as Connor did, he cropped the negative and enlarged the cropped section. His prints emphasized the abstract, black-and-white aspect of the negative. In his project, Ruff tried to subvert the mapping goal of the “Catalog of the Southern Sky” by focusing on a small, unidentifiable part of the negative.

Celmins created pencil drawings of stellar photographs. Like Ruff, she tried to remove visual clues about distances and space. She also tried to efface traces of the instruments used to take the original photographs. Kessler spent considerable time looking at Celmins’s drawing of Coma Berenices:

Celmins’s drawing of Coma Berenices (Source: Screenshot from Hammer Museum, UCLA)

Two threads linked Kessler’s examples: First, each artist played with, perhaps disrupted is a better word, the astronomical artifact, consciously confusing or highlighting the artifactual nature of the original photograph. Second, each example represented for Kessler one aspect of astronomical research over the past century. For Connor and Barnard it was the problem of nebulosity. For Ruff it was mapping the sky. For Celmins it was dark matter.

For me, the interesting questions focused less on the artifacts and more with the residual traces of tacit skills and practices. Kessler showed a slide form Connor’s collection on which ghostly fingerprints could be seen in the original emulsion—we were told they are Barnard’s own. It seemed like a modern version of Steven Shapin’s interest in the invisible technician. Kessler’s talk also suggested a range of practices and technologies that produced the first artifact—Barnard had to ensure that his telescope tracked the stars as the earth rotates, technicians “verified” photos from the “Catalog of the Southern Sky” and proofed duplicates to ensure that they were accurate, visual anomalies such as lens flare showed up in some of Celmins’s drawings. It might be interesting to think about how these practices and technologies shape the original artifact and the subsequent piece of art.

Tags: art history, astronomy, e. e. barnard, lick observatory, linda connor, thomas ruff, vija celmins

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