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Before 'Hidden Figures,' there were the Harvard Computers. Now their work has inspired this art

Lia Halloran’s big, beautiful maps of stars and other astronomical phenomena at Luis De Jesus gallery pay tribute to a little-known group of female scientists dubbed the Harvard Computers. Annie Jump Cannon, Cecilia Payne, Henrietta Leavitt and others were predecessors of the female mathematicians lionized in the film “Hidden Figures.”

Beginning in the 1880s, the women worked at the Harvard College Observatory analyzing glass photographic plates of the night sky. They calculated the relative size and distance of the stars and developed a stellar classification system that is still in use today. Smithsonian magazine characterized their work as providing “the empirical foundations for larger astronomical theory,” but they have been neglected by history.

Lia Halloran's "The Great Comet, After Annie Jump Cannon,” 2016
Lia Halloran's "The Great Comet, After Annie Jump Cannon,” 2016 (Lia Halloran / Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.)

Halloran worked with the Harvard University Archive to identify and select plates used by the women. From these, she made large drawings in dark blue ink on translucent paper and used them as negatives to make cyanotypes, or blueprints. The prints were created by exposing the photosensitive media directly to the sun. They are prints of the stars made by a star.

The images of nebulae, comets and star clusters are enclosed in circles or ovals, evoking not only the lens of the telescope but also more inward views: ova, or perhaps Petri dishes. These circular frames are surrounded by washes of ink that has been allowed to eddy and pool in natural, liquid formations. When rendered in negative in the cyanotypes, these swirls suggest lightning or solar flares.

In some cases, the unpredictable properties of the ink and cyanotype chemicals interfere with the stars. In “Orion Nebula, After Henrietta Leavitt,” traces of liquid form a wing-like shape across most of the image. The effect lends the work an air of animate mystery, as if there is a ghost in the machine. It’s a fitting tribute to these women, unsung intellects behind our understanding of the universe.

Luis De Jesus Los Angeles, 2685 S. La Cienega Blvd. Through May 20; closed Sundays and Mondays. (310) 838-6000, www.luisdejesus.com

Lia Halloran's "Nebulae, After Williamina Fleming,” 2016
Lia Halloran's "Nebulae, After Williamina Fleming,” 2016 (Lia Halloran / Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.)

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