We share the stars with all of humanity. Estimates differ, but there are an conjectured seventy sextillion (100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 or 1023) stars in our observable universe and many of the nearest and brightest stars have been sharing their message of existence via transmitted light for far past recorded history (van Dokkum 2). The urge to record history, to map our existence and our understanding is a relatively primitive concept, but an instinct wired into human existence. Man has worked to map the stars over so many years, from ancient civilization onward, predicting cosmic events and even hypothesizing on future cosmic and terrestrial events. As the earth becomes more populated, the possibility of the x- and y-axis of our terrestrial understanding has become more defined. In response, we again have looked to the sky for answers; this time with the desire for control. Trevor Paglen, Thomas Ruff, and Giovanni G. Fazio all make and use images of the night sky with independent intentions, but all are at the mercy of the unfathomable scale and complexity of our universe, physically unreachable and limited strictly to observation.
Much, if not all, of the power playing out on these stages is on the national level: few, if any, individuals are capable of fiscally and tactically handling the limitations space travel and orbital communications pose. We are therefore at the mercy of two discursive powers, national (“global”) military powers and “big science”, to set forth and advance our exploration on behalf of their citizens (Parks 8). Trevor Paglen understands the realities this presents. His project, “The Other Night Sky”, is a series of photographs of orbital satellites not on record, but are clearly observable to the careful amateur. Working with a group of enthusiasts, Paglen tracks the synthetic moons as they work against the expected trails of the night sky. Many of the satellites are in geosynchronous (stationary to the viewer) and others are in low-earth orbit, meaning they can orbit the earth once every 90-120 minutes. Depending on the type of satellite observed, Paglen’s images vary in appearance. Low-orbit imaging satellites, known to many as Keyhole or “KH” satellites are similar to the Hubble Space Telescope, with the exception of the imaging sensor being pointed toward earth rather than into the cosmos. Paglen’s KEYHOLE 12-3/IMPROVED CRYSTAL Optical Reconnaissance Satellite Near Scorpio (USA 129) is an example of one of these KHs, appearing as a streak on a clouded and light-polluted evening. The streak appears with a long exposure revealing a segment of the satellite’s 92.3-minute orbit as the sun reflects off of the object in orbit (Peat). Geostationary satellites appear as clean dots against long star trails. Many times, exposures will last many minutes, allowing the trails to extend far, as in PAN (Unknown; USA-207), which illustrates a triangular array of US geostationary communications satellites, highlighting USA-207 in particular, known as PAN (Palladium At Night) (Day). The mission for this formation is classified, but it is guessed by the codename, palladium, security is a main emphasis. Paglen’s satellites, mirroring the sun and moonlighting as celestial bodies, remind us that there is a fleet of observers, listeners, and watchers drifting in the miles above our heads. Many of these enable our national telephony, international communications, positioning systems, and entertainment, but there are a vast number more that occupy “the other night sky.”
Of the two aforementioned discursive powers, “big science” is the focus of the following individual, who by many standards, may not even be recognized as a photographer or part of the art community. His Harvard faculty page lists him as a lecturer and Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) Astrophysicist. Giovanni G. Fazio is an observer of the night sky, but in a much different capacity than Trevor Paglen. Fazio studies the sky (formerly as Principal Investigator) through the use of one of NASA’s four “Great Observatories” (Heiferman 71). The Infrared Array Camera (IRAC) is one of three focal-plane instruments on board the Spitzer Space Telescope, and is a multipurpose imaging device that follows in an earth-trailing orbit, shielding it from the heat generated by earth and allowing for a naturally cooler operating environment as well as a clearer field of observation. The unique specialization of the IRAC is that it allows us to visualize infrared emissions of extragalactic formations, providing the human eye with a visual representation of what can be “seen” through dust and gas clouds. This representation is then spectacularly displayed in false color (as an “accurate” color is not possible with the non-visible spectrum) and studied in depth. In this capacity, photography serves the sciences and hearkens back to some of the earliest desires and hopes for photography: to help us qualify, quantify, and extrapolate the intricacies of our universe utilizing photography’s inability to “lie”. While not intentionally part of the art world, the images created and collected by Fazio and his collaborators have been widely influential and informative to the general public. The photograph of Messier 81 (a supernova also known as M81) highlighted in an essay by Fazio in Marvin Heifferman’s Photography Changes Everything is a great example of the reach an image from IRAC can have (72). Fazio’s M81 photograph is familiar to many people and stands as a monument, among many other such images, to discovery and scientific investigation, conveying information impossible to visualize if not aided by the very same systems that permit Paglen’s “other night sky” to surveil to continually look inward instead of outward.
Thomas Ruff is not a part of the active science community, but his work often overlaps fields of interest. Ruff’s Sterne series from 1989-92 are a series of photographs of the night sky made from some of the original negatives of the European Southern Observatory archive (Enwezor 84). Ruff, in contrast to Paglen, displays black-and-white images of the far reaches of space, utilizing the light of distant stars and galaxies in an almost abstract formation. It can be noted by the time light reaches the film plane, many of the stars that are millions of light-years away may not continue to exist. Even so, Ruff does not strive to create a record of reality: in fact, Martin Germann, curator at S.M.A.K., insisted that in the series, Ruff is “never telling something like the truth.” While the “eidos”, Barthes’ evidentiary “that-has-been” of a photograph is a necessity in the work of Paglen and Fazio, Ruff is much more intent on making images and looking critically at the function of photography, with the capture of light being its most basic function (76). In this sense, Ruff’s Sterne series functions as a mechanical repetition (to again borrow from Barthes) of what “can never be repeated existentially”, without Ruff having the focus (or intention) representation (4). The photographs of the IRAC commissioned by Fazio share a number of formal similarities to Ruff’s work, but function in quite different capacities. Both are extraterrestrial views of deep space in form, but in function, Ruff’s images again are designed “not to capture reality, but to create a picture” (Art Forum). In this capacity, the pictures Ruff has made don’t depict the night sky, or Paglen’s “other night sky”, but another night sky altogether. Ruff’s night sky is one of complex forms in a most singular presentation – an extension of our imaginations and existential questioning, a past reality rendered unreal by mode of presentation and context.
Almost all of the various display methods for these images (withholding digital media application) are large: Ruff’s Sterne series measure 106.36” x 76” apiece and Paglen’s Other Night Sky photographs vary between 48” square to 48” x 60”, both artists choosing c-prints as their photographic medium. The work of IRAC and Fazio is much more widely variable, being used as textbook covers, in publications, as backdrops for NASA and to promote their institution on signage and other materials, but is most widely distributed in it’s digital form for analysis. This variety in function mirrors the intended context of the the the two artists and the astrophysicist.
The inability to travel to the locations observed by these sky-lookers give the photographs an extra power. Paglen’s images illicit a sense of excitement as we corporately view classified information with limited understanding and knowledge, feeding the “great American resource of paranoia” (Heiferman 67). Fazio’s unreal false-color infrared images of concealed constellar configurations give us superhuman views of a near-infinite galaxy, padding the human spirit with ideas of omniscience and an “anything-is-possible” mentality. Ruff’s images give an even higher power: the power to represent the unknowable and unfathomable by fixing “that-which-is”, creating “that-has-been”, and allowing Ruff to further abstract the representative image into a photographic object, allowing it to be opened up for introspection. In each of these functions, the user has tapped into a cosmological subject from a terrestrial position. While few humans are able to leave Earth, none are able to visit stars in physical reality, and we are left to perpetually observe and speculate on the incalculable expanse that is our universe.
Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida : Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang, 2010. Print.
Day, Dwayne. “PAN’s Labyrinth.” The Space Review, 2009. Web. 26 Mar. 2016.
Enwezor, Okwui. Thomas Ruff : Works 1979-2011. München: Schirmer/Mosel, 2012. Print.
Heiferman, Marvin. Photography Changes Everything. Washington, D.C: Smithsonian Institutiion, 2012. Print.
Paglen, Trevor, and Rebecca Solnit. Trevor Paglen: Invisible: Covert Operations and Classified Landscapes. New York, NY: Aperture, 2010. Print.
Parks, Lisa, and James Schwoch, eds. Down to Earth. ; Satellite Technologies, Industries, and Cultures. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012. Print.
Peat, Chris. “USA 161 – Orbit.” N. p., 2015. Web. 26 Mar. 2016.
van Dokkum, Pieter G, and Charlie Conroy. “A Substantial Population of Low-Mass Stars in Luminous Elliptical Galaxies.” Nature 468.7326 (2010): 940–942.