The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Vernacular photography is the latest type of photography to be discovered by museums. Postcards, collected by Walker Evans (but still, postcards), have just been exhibited by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a tintype exhibition just closed at the International Center of Photography in New York, another exhibit of snapshots was seen at the National Gallery of Art. In fact, a spate of recent exhibitions, publications, and conferences argues that everyday photographs, taken by people presumably innocent of aesthetic intentions, but busy doing the business of other disciplines, or pre-occupied with making a record of their personal lives, have become worthy of our attention. Why? Have we run out of masterpieces by known artists? Or have we begun to dig deeper into the archives that have silted up since photography’s invention and in so doing have we begun to unearth a larger, fuller history of photography than has been written to date? In addition to being the Smithsonian’s first staff photographer, Thomas Smillie was also the institution’s first photography curator. Interestingly, in 1896 when a formal Section of Photography was established Smillie was titled "Custodian" and the first objects he collected—for the sum of $23 he bought the daguerreotype camera and photographic apparatus used by Samuel Morse, one of the first Americans to experiment with photography—were called "specimens." Smillie’s activity as photographer and curator matched the interests and expansion of the Smithsonian itself. By the late 1880s Smillie’s list of photographs, either ones he made or made by others which he collected, included subjects from a growing array of disciplines: ethnological and archaeological, lithological, mineralogical, ornithological, metallurgical, and perhaps the most enticing category of all, miscellaneous. As Albert Moore, the man who sold Smillie Morse’s equipment, wrote, the Smithsonian seemed to be "making a museum of photography." For Smillie the history of photography was the sum of all its functions, from the most prosaic to the most aetheticized. In 1913 for the first exhibition of photography at the Smithsonian, which fittingly took place in the Arts and Industries building, Smillie arranged the photographs in a rough chronological order in displays that highlighted their value as documents of history, as portrayers of American life, as tools of science and technology, and as artistic images. Even so, nothing about the exhibition suggested that one function of photography was elevated above any other. At heart, Smillie’s view of photography presented a unified field in which art and function are inseparable. Photography’s scientific, commercial, and vernacular functions were all part of a single conversation about images. In today’s digital media age, it is a conversation, I suspect, that we will be having more often.
Merry Foresta is the Former Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.
Throughout May and June, we are inviting people throughout the Smithsonian to talk about photography and astronomy. This is the first installment from Megan Watzke, Press Officer at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. Most people think of a telescope as something in a backyard or the dome at the local planetarium. And it’s true that many telescopes are designed to enhance our ability to observe the light we see with our human eyes. But that’s just one kind of telescope that detects just one type of light. It turns out that light takes on many forms—a majority of which cannot be seen with our eyes. Most people know this on an intuitive level since they know they can get sunburned from ultraviolet (or "UV") radiation that we can’t see. And the Universe tells its story through all of these different types of radiation from radio to infrared to X-rays and beyond. Therefore, in order to really understand the cosmos, astronomers need all different kinds of telescopes. One way to think about this is the following analogy. Imagine you have never been to a baseball game, nor have you ever even heard of the sport. Then suppose someone takes you to a game, but has blocked your vision so you could only see a small sliver down the third base line. From that narrow vantage point, you are supposed to figure out the rules of the game, the score, etc. Pretty tough, right? Well, that’s what astronomers would be doing if they tried to study the Universe only with telescopes that could see light detectable by the human eye (what scientists refer to as "visible light"). Just as it’s a lot easier to figure out the rules of baseball when you see the entire field, so too is the Universe much more understandable if you can see the whole cosmos. If these other kinds of telescopes are important, then why haven't more people heard about them? Well, humans have visible light "telescopes": their eyes. Galileo built on this fact in 1609 and work in "optical" astronomy has progressed from there. Observing in other types of light, or wavelengths, however, is a lot more complicated. For example, X-rays from space are almost entirely absorbed by the Earth's atmosphere. Therefore, we couldn’t start X-ray astronomy until humans figured out how to launch satellites and rockets into space in the middle of the 20th century. That’s where the Chandra X-ray Observatory comes in. Launched aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1999, Chandra is one NASA’s "Great Observatories." This was a program started by in the 1980s to launch four major telescopes into space—each of which would look at a different type of light. You may have heard of the one that looks at visible light—it’s named Hubble. The others are the Compton Gamma-ray Observatory and the Spitzer Space Telescope that looks at infrared. But back to Chandra. When objects get very hot (or, by extension, very energetic), they give off X-rays. Some of the most intriguing objects in the Universe—things like black holes, exploded stars, clusters of galaxies—reveal much about themselves through X-rays. And how do we make images of X-rays, which are invisible? We do this by assigning colors to different ranges of X-rays that Chandra detects. Typically (but not always), we will make the lowest-energy X-rays Chandra has detected red, the medium range will be green and the most energetic X-rays are blue. When you combine these layers together, you get an X-ray image. Next time, we’ll go into some of the details of how you make images when your X-ray camera is thousands of miles above the Earth.
Megan Watzke of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.
Throughout May and June, we are inviting people throughout the Smithsonian to talk about photography and astronomy. Welcome Joseph Caputo, intern at the Smithsonian Magazine. In April 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope was dropped off 353 miles above the surface of the Earth. This tin can the size of a school bus had one mission: Photograph the universe. Today, nearly 20 years and 200,000 pictures later, seven astronauts are lifting off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida to upgrade the Hubble telescope for the last time. Sometime in the next decade, it will be retired, replaced by the James Webb Space Telescope. Hubble’s legacy so far is more than just a collection of pretty photographs. (And they are beautiful—the colors of space are a mixture of tans, purples and blues against an infinite black.) The images have led to some of the biggest astronomical discoveries in recent years. For instance, we can thank Hubble for the visuals necessary to verify the age of the universe and the existence of dark matter. With its advanced array of lenses and mirrors, the telescope has captured stars being born, supermassive black holes, and explosions so powerful they’ve echoed through space for millions of years. When I was asked to assemble a photo essay for Smithsonian.com featuring "Hubble’s Finest Photographs," I didn’t expect there would be so many stories in the page after page of white dots and celestial clouds. Though it may take the Hubble seconds to capture celestial shapes, it can take scientists years to understand and explain them. Let’s take the 2005 photograph of the pinwheel-like galaxy NGC 1309, located 100-million light-years from Earth. Sure the picture could easily hang in a gallery, but more importantly it helped astronomers more accurately calculate the universe’s rate of expansion. By measuring Earth’s distance from the exploding stars in the photograph, scientists have been able to determine that the universe’s expansion is accelerating, because galaxies like NGC 1309 are moving away ever faster. The greatest narrative told by Hubble and Earth’s major telescopes is the evolution of the universe. When we look up at the sky, we are actually looking through time. When we take a picture of the sun, the light that reaches our cameras is already 8 minutes old. It’s impossible to take a picture of the sun as it is right now. The same is true for a faraway star. It’s light must travel trillions of miles and may be millions of years old before it reaches a telescope’s lens. Because of such physics, Hubble has captured stars, now long dead, being born. It’s lets us see galaxies that currently rest sin the pit of a black hole. The Hubble photographs will never give us a complete view of space. It’s like an ant colony trying to map the Earth with one tiny camera pointed upwards. The telescope does, however, give us perspective. We’ve learned that to the universe, our solar system is a village. Population: 8. The Hubble keeps us humble.
Joseph Caputo is an Intern at Smithsonian Magazine.
While browsing through our photographs, I found a serendipitous connection between our recent Women in Science portraits and our present focus on astronomy and photography. Annie Jump Cannon, one of the women featured in that set, began her tenure at Harvard College Observatory as one of the many female "computers" under Observatory director, Edward Pickering. These computers, sometimes called "Pickering’s Women," were hired to do the tedious scanning and measuring of astronomical photographic plates and the resulting calculations on the positions and brightness of stars. Pickering could hire female computers as unpaid volunteers or for a fraction of the price of men, and he observed that the women he hired (including his housekeeper) were actually more capable of the laborious and detail-oriented work than many of the male scientists. Most women during this time period didn’t have university-level science educations and so they tended to be able to contribute the most in data-gathering and sciences that didn’t require specific educational training, such as botany and astronomy. In particular, the shift in the late-19th and early-20th centuries from observational astronomy to the new field of photographic astrophysics allowed women to become some of the most important astronomers of their time. Annie Jump Cannon systematically categorized the hundreds of thousands of stars shown on the photo plates taken at the Observatory to create her own special classification system, which is still in use today. Cannon’s colleague, Henrietta Leavitt, devised a theory that helped to discovered the period-luminosity law for Cepheids, on which basis astronomers still measure the size of the cosmos, and discovered 2,400 variable stars—about half of the total number of variable stars known at that time! Though they received almost no recognition during their lifetime, "Pickering’s Women" succeeded in far surpassing most of their male counterparts in their discoveries through astronomy and photography. As Bill Bryson notes in his book, A Short History of Nearly Everything: "(Just to put these insights into perspective, it is perhaps worth noting that at the time Leavitt and Cannon were inferring fundamental properties of the cosmos from dim smudges on photographic plates, the Harvard astronomer William H. Pickering*, who could of course peer into a first-class telescope as often as he wanted, was developing his seminal theory that dark patches on the Moon were caused by swarms of seasonally migrating insects.)" For more information and references, see Science in the early twentieth century: An Encyclopedia (pg. 249), by Jacob Darwin Hamblin.
How can photography help us see things that would otherwise go unnoticed in our everyday lives? How does photography change our perception of the world? If you have ideas about this, consider contributing your image and story to the new click! photography changes everything call for entry: "Seeing Other Worlds." While you’re at it, check out some of our click! stories that examine "seeing other worlds" for inspiration: Stewart Brand, creator of the counterculture Whole Earth Catalog, talks about how the first photograph of the entire earth (made by Apollo 8 mission to the moon in December 1968) was an impetus for global ecological and political movements; and visitor contributor Reya Mellicker notes that because human vision is subjective and quite limited in scope, that photographs allow us "to see things and people, situations and landscapes, perspectives, angles, colors and shapes that we might never have noticed on our own." To celebrate this call for entry and International Year of Astronomy 2009, we’ll also be rolling out new photos of the universe from the Chandra X-ray Observatory on Flickr Commons. And in May and June guest bloggers from across the Smithsonian will be on hand to tell us how in the world the Chandra images are actually made, and to give us a peek inside other astronomy-related photo collections across the Smithsonian. Participate in "Seeing Other Worlds" by submitting your photo and accompanying story to the click! website or the SPI Flickr Group today. We look forward to hearing from you.