This year’s Smithsonian Distinguished Research Lecture was given by Dr. Giovanni Fazio, Senior Physicist at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. His subject was the Spitzer Space Telescope, launched in 2003, but which is now producing an exciting new view of the Universe seen in infrared light, something that allows astronomers to view regions of space invisible to optical telescopes. And it does this by producing spectacular images of distant territories of the universe; so distant that without Spitzer we would have no idea of their shape and structure. For click! photography changes everything, Dr. Fazio elaborated about Spitzer’s Infrared Array Camera (IRAC) that in his words, “opened a new window to the Universe” and which in the years since its launch, produced “numerous and spectacular images that help us make new discoveries about our Universe.” Not surprisingly, the field of astronomy—a dual product of science and art—was among the first to appreciate photography’s potential as an instrument of observation. In fact, it is difficult to imagine astronomy advancing solely on words and numbers. Daguerre himself made a pale image of the moon (the exposure time was over 20 minutes) to prove the potential benefits of the medium to his sponsor, the astronomer and Director of the Paris Observatory, François Arago. Photographers in both Europe and America followed, attempting images of the sun, the moon, the stars. John and Henry Draper even photographed the light given off by these heavenly bodies.
In 1851, a little over ten years after photography’s invention, The Harvard College Observatory, which at the time possessed the world largest telescope, commissioned Boston chemist and early photographer John Adam Whipple to make photographs. During the winter of 1850-1851, he made the first clear photographs of the moon through a telescope; one image won him a medal at the Great Exhibition in London that year. Previously, only a few people had seen the surface of the moon. That single daguerreotype, seen by the thousands of visitors to the exhibition and discussed in popular magazines and scientific journals, dispersed new knowledge to a large audience, offering, what Dr. Fazio suggests is still the case with images beamed back from space, fresh ways of mapping and knowing the universe. Whipple’s work along with nearly a half a million photographic records continue to be used by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the Harvard College Observatory to document and verify astronomical change and variation. Today, any announcement of new revelations from the edge of space from Hubble, Chandra, or Spitzer instantly attracts millions of viewers to websites showing the images. Brilliant and convincing pictures have a kind of celebrity power: they help attract good minds and public support to sciences that produce fine displays. While we also recognize the limitations of photographs to obtain the “perfection” and “truth” that early critics claimed for the medium, it is also true that photographs help us measure our own place in the world, and increasingly in the universe.
Merry Foresta is the Former Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.