Project (2012)

Photography and Astronomy

During her time at the MPIWG Charlotte Bigg worked on a book, Photography and Astronomy, to appear in Reaktion Books’ Exposure series on the history of photography. The book focuses on a field of experimentation and practice one might call photographic astronomy or astronomical photography that grew out of a number of shared interests and techniques among astronomers and early practitioners of photography from the early nineteenth-century onwards. For photography is not simply a set of techniques for representing objects, but has frequently been its own object of representation and investigation. Astronomy provided some of the greatest challenges faced by photography (enormously distant objects, enormously high expectations of precision and reliability) and a set of skills and resources (instrumental, theoretical, institutional) for helping the newfangled photography address them.

Astronomic photography seemed to be doomed more than once given the extraordinary demands placed upon the technique from early on. In the nineteenth century the utopian view of photography as a device for truthful recording of reality was put to especially hard test in astronomy. In projects such as the Carte du Ciel launched in 1887, photography was expected to provide the ultimate map of the stellar skies, exhaustive and exact. The Carte du Ciel was to function, among others, as a record of the state of the heavens at a given time, an archive for future generations of astronomers to exploit. The book brings to light the challenges, technical, organizational and social, that such projects entailed and how they in turm contributed to transform both astronomic and photographic practices and communities. The adaptation of photography for traditional positional astronomical purposes thus eventually caused a sea change in the social organization of work in observatories when it became possible to record the position of innumerable stars in a moment on a single plate: the avalanche of data thus produced led to the creation of large teams of plate measurers and calculators managed using rational work organization systems developed for industrial production. This mass of data itself facilitated the development of statistical approaches in astronomy and a whole new perspective on the universe.