Review: ‘History of Space Photography’ is out of this world


A cultural moment is passing. The space shuttle Discovery, strapped to the back of a Boeing 747, was recently ferried with great fanfare to its new home at a branch of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Virginia. The California Science Center is building an aircraft hangar for its sister shuttle, Endeavour, which is expected to arrive in Los Angeles in the fall. The remaining shuttle, Atlantis, is in Florida, where it will be displayed at the Kennedy Space Center.

Useful artifacts of daily life, however rarefied, are moving into the look-but-don’t-touch precinct of museum galleries, like ancient Greek storage vases or Edwardian pantaloons. “[We] are proud of our museums, where we display the damning evidence of a way of life that we have made impossible,” wrote Ananda Coomaraswamy, the great Ceylonese curator and scholar of Indian art at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts before World War II. “We preserve folk songs, at the same time that our way of life destroys the singer....”

What’s also passing is American space exploration as the exclusive province of government action. Next month, expect the first-ever docking of a privately owned commercial spacecraft with the International Space Station. A cargo vessel developed by SpaceX, a private firm in Hawthorne, is planned to launch from Cape Canaveral on Monday.

As if channeling Coomaraswamy, the gallery at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena is also on hand — albeit it coincidentally — to mark the passage of government near-exclusivity in space exploration. A large exhibition chronicles “The History of Space Photography” through May 6.

Guest curator Jay Belloli worked with several consultants from the nearby Jet Propulsion Lab. (JPL, founded at Caltech and affiliated with NASA, has 23 spacecraft and 10 instruments conducting active missions, according to its website.) Belloli and his team selected 150 noteworthy images, most from the last 50 years of space exploration, and added three video projections that feature various celestial animations.

Belloli has his own long history with the genre, having organized the first such art museum show, “25 Years of Space Photography,” in 1985. (I had the pleasure of writing an essay for the catalog. It traveled the globe to more than 50 museums. The current Art Center exhibition, which unfortunately is not accompanied by a publication, uses color-coded walls to divide the array of often eye-boggling pictures into manageable categories.

There are pictures of Earth taken from rockets and satellites in space (53 images on blue walls), which might make you think of the painterly tradition of figures engaged in voluptuous self-regard in a mirror. Another group features outward-looking pictures of the sun, solar system and individual planets (36 images on light brown walls), including the icy — and oddly glamorous — rings of Saturn and the intricate Viking Lander 2 resting on Mars before a pale pink sky.

Other pictures, some of them spectacular, probe far beyond the solar system into deep space (42 images on dark brown walls). One shows the green-rimmed Helix Nebula in Aquarius — a constellation first recorded by the 2nd century astronomer Ptolemy, living in Egypt under Roman rule — which glowers like an angry red eye in the sky.

The show includes classics, such as Edward Hubble’s 1923 telescopic photograph verifying the existence of galaxies beyond our own Milky Way. Astronaut John Glenn’s 1962 color photograph taken from the window of his orbital spacecraft is a kind of drive-by tourist snapshot on steroids (it shows the Georgia coastline). “The History of Space Photography” offers total visual fictions too, since images made from cameras performing digital scans gathered over time (sometimes many minutes) are composites; color is also always malleable and print size is arbitrary.

And the show raises questions too. Can a robot make art? Rarely can an artist be identified, because many of these photographs were recorded automatically. They’re transpersonal, produced by a complex web of advanced technological culture.

A drawback to the show is that, unlike 1985, a seemingly endless supply of space photographs can today be readily accessed online. NASA’s Earth Observatory satellite website contains a huge, ever-expanding trove of photographs showing everything from ice floes off Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula to the man-made resort island of Palm Jumeirah in Dubai. With a few mouse clicks, JPL’s own website can send your eyes 10,000 light years away to the northern constellation Cassiopeia.

Perhaps that’s one reason the most consistently fascinating section of the show is at the start — 19 historical images, including Hubble’s, all made in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Dating from long before the first rocket ship (or the Internet), they tend to be the traditional product of individual engagement with a camera.

These early photographs start with John Herschel’s silhouetted 1839 image of a murky, jungle-gym type of construction that turns out to be a 40-inch telescope. (Herschel, a British scientist like his German-born father, William, coined the word “photograph” — a legacy that underscores the medium’s dual parentage in science and art.) The picture is circular, like human vision and a camera’s lens. Using the brand-spanking-new invention called a camera to record for posterity a playful-looking telescope that could catapult a human eye toward the stars sanctified the scientific impulse underlying the modern world.

The most evocative early image is David Gill’s “The Great Comet of 1882,” a famous skinny wedge of light smeared across a speckled sheet. The dramatic comet, especially visible in the Southern Hemisphere, was a night-sky event that captured the imagination over the course of many months. Gill photographed it from Cape Town, South Africa.

The Great Comet was also one of four such fireballs carefully recorded over the course of four decades in vaporous yellow pigment brushed lightly on a small piece of black-painted tin by the great, self-taught Mexican portraitist Hermenegildo Bustos (1832-1907). Bustos modified the Mexican artistic tradition of ex-votos, little images painted in thanks for daily miracles, to accommodate the celestial phenomena. Today his “group portrait” of comets hangs in the Alhóndiga de Granaditas regional museum in Guanajuato, just up the street from Diego Rivera’s birthplace.

Gill’s photo also recalls numerous paintings and prints of galaxies and planets made since the 1960s by Vija Celmins. Her incomparable, acute sense of touch is applied to invented images of objects that a human hand cannot reach. The art throws the power of human imagination into high relief.

No doubt Gill had different aims from Bustos and Celmins. Still, all these images have at least one thing in common: The inescapably mysterious pull of emitted light is the pivot on which out-of-this-world pictures turn.