Images of Space get a Second Look

NEW YORK — Much like paintings of America’s Wild West commissioned by government surveyors became icons that redefined American culture in the 19th century, photographs of alien landscapes taken by the Voyager spacecraft have shaken our sense of self today.

And the scientific images, snapshots taken through cold robotic eyes, just might be art.

The photographs of that second awakening, and other images from robotic space probes, were the subject of a panel discussion at the American Museum of Natural History titled “Far Out: Space Probes as Landscape Photographers.” Panel participants included former NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory director Bruce Murray and Anne Druyan, science writer, producer and widow of Carl Sagan. Arthur C. Clarke spoke by telephone and in a specially made video.

The impetus behind the event was the publication of an unprecedented collection of photographs from such machines as the Voyagers, Vikings and Magellan, called Beyond: Visions of Interplanetary Probes, by filmmaker Michael Benson, who was also a panelist. The book hits bookstores in November, just months ahead of robotic missions to Mars and Saturn, and after the deaths of probes Pioneer 10 and Galileo.

“The bands of Jupiter looked to me like abstract art,” said Murray, who oversaw the Jet Propulsion Laboratory when the most famous Voyager images of the Jupiter and Saturn systems poured

Other photographs of solar system features, flashing as a slideshow at center stage, were compared by panelists and audience members to works by Jackson Pollock and Salvador Dalí, and to schools of art as diverse as finger painting, art deco and the “wild style” graffiti that was popular when the two Voyager craft lifted off in 1977.

Regarding the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, once just points of light, Murray said the probes’ photos established “the fact that each had a surface, each had a story.”

“It was an aesthetic revelation and a scientific puzzle, and it still is … I don’t think humanity will ever be the same. Voyager has done that,” Murray said.

To be profoundly humbled, one need only view the dizzying variety of moons in our solar system, like riotously volcanic and sulfuric Io and icy and oceanic Europa, and then ponder that each of the billions of stars in the galaxy may be ringed with planets that in turn host such moons. Now add to that incomprehensible array of worlds and worldlets the innumerable others that likely exist in the billions of other galaxies.

“It’s another blow to our delusions that we are the yardstick” by which the universe is to be measured, Druyan said.

Columbia University philosopher Arthur C. Danto said our modern sense of physical insignificance in the universe might be relatively new, owed to science. The Greeks, for example, thought of the heavens primarily as useful for astrology, and later Europeans painted vaults with stars merely as a “decorative motif.”

“I don’t know if they felt small,” said Danto. “We’re quite different people.”

A sense of the tremendous scale of space can be seen in what may be Beyond’s centerfold pinup. It’s the mesmerizing blended mosaic of Voyager 1 images of Europa — “simply a pearl in space,” Benson calls it — serenely floating over the swirling eddies, bands and Great Red Spot of Jupiter’s turbulent atmosphere.

Using Photoshop, Benson worked for three weeks to assemble that sweeping photograph from 60 high-resolution frames. The result brings to mind what art critic D.O.C. Townely wrote in 1872 of expedition painter Thomas Moran’s painting, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone: “If ever a subject justified the use of a gigantic canvas, surely this one does.”

If such photographs can be viewed as art, the human mind must still be part of the equation, the panelists agreed. Yet our probes so far have been unthinking drones, incapable of initiative. Even operators on Earth have few chances to make aesthetic choices with a camera that receives instructions minutes or hours later across the vastness of space. And while NASA scientists and engineers strive to produce accurate photographic representation from the binary bits that arrive back home by radio signal, the transformation of images into art comes when someone like Benson frames and edits them.

A key element of that creative process is “the human capacity for awe,” writer Lawrence Weschler said. That effect makes the photos more than data, said landscape photographer Joel Meyerowitz. “There were many times I was stopped and had to gasp. The images allowed my mind to wander in,” he said. “That becomes artful to me.”

The images, available on the Internet at Planetary Photojournal and Planetary Image Atlas — haven’t yet been fully digested by our culture.

Druyan said her favorite image, a view of Earth as a pixel of pale blue light from 4 billion miles away, is a “punchline to the golden age of space exploration” and “the greatest post-Copernican statement ever made.” Given the millennia of warfare this planet has witnessed, she said her hope, shared by Carl Sagan, is that a sense of frangibility and preciousness conveyed by the photograph might help “awaken us from our stupor and madness.”

Copyright Erik Baard

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