Landscape and Trajectory

by Michael Benson


Future historians may perceive that the cascade of insights and innovations which finally led to powered flight at the turn of the 20th Century – and ultimately, space travel – occurred virtually simultaneously with the invention of a means to record it. But in fact by the time the Wright Brother’s flimsy first airplane lifted into the stiff headwinds of the Kitty Hawk peninsula in December 17, 1903, photography was 64 years old. The medium’s relative sophistication by the time of the first powered flight is evident in the clarity of our image of the event. Although still on glass-plate negative, by then emulsions were sufficiently sensitive, and shutter speeds fast enough, to freeze the Wright Flyer in time, suspended above the sand. The only blurring visible in the image was produced by its two whirling wooden propellers.


The original Flyer can be found at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum; its delicate spars, cables and flimsy canvas make it seem more a sketch than a fully realized concept – the skin of an idea rather than its fruit. Photographic evidence to the contrary (because, after all, the machine is palpably aloft) constitutes among the best known of close to 200 prints presented in the exhibition “Sky Dreamers.” In a mounted print evidently once owned by Wright Brothers biographer John R. McMahon, and used so frequently for mass media reproduction that it bears the patina of many a newsroom and publisher, John T. Daniels’ photograph of the miraculously suspended Flyer hangs immutably within the first third of the exhibition.[1] “Sky Dreamers” traces the history of flight from its earliest manifestations in balloons and dirigibles through gliders, heaver-than-air powered flight, advanced airplanes and finally space exploration – including robotic exploration, or images produced by semi-autonomous unmanned spacecraft. It’s an extraordinary trajectory.


One could say that both art and its cousin, documentation, are surpluses produced by something itself constituting a surplus – with the latter being life itself, a product of excess energy and fortuitous chemistry within the universe’s larger frame. It’s as hard to determine their true function is as it is to ascertain the same concerning life’s position in space and time. Still, certain patterns are clear. The upward arc documented by “Sky Dreamers” illustrates an inexorable bursting-out, a vital push – by both life and its means of expression – to transcend geography, gravity and even mortality.


If we disregard various creation mythologies in favor of scientific explanations, which at least have the humility to admit where they fall short, we can say life was produced through an obscure alchemy in a region of the universe where conditions were right, excess energy abounded, and serendipity reigned. And after 3.7 billion years of incremental evolution (a period punctuated by several near-apocalyptic natural catastrophes that came close to wiping it out altogether), it eventually produced intelligence, which is another term for matter capable of self-regard. A piece of the universe capable of perceiving itself, in other words, had arisen. According to this view, the self-consciousness of the species is the self-consciousness of the universe itself, and that tendency is both abetted and made manifest by our modes of expression and documentation. Every photograph is an investigation of matter by matter.


So one could do worse than to survey that genre for clues as to our progress – progress both in discerning larger universal truths and in achieving insights about our situation and ourselves. At least in its early phases, before techniques of photographic manipulation became sophisticated, photos were understood as confirmation of something thereby verified as true. The clarity of the shot and suspended state of the Wright Flyer proved to the world that an improbable event had taken place as an incontrovertible fact, albeit with only five witnesses physically present. Photography was, and in many cases still is, taken as evidence of objective truth.[2] It is a manifestation of, and a means to the furtherance of, the scientific revolution that made empiricism virtually the only means for studying natural phenomena. The verification of the visual evidence of the world and of the greater universe inaugurated by photographic processes runs in parallel with and augments photography’s impact on the arts and popular culture. (The latter pair of overlapping fields rapidly appropriated both the technique – photography and film – and subject matter presented here – flight and space exploration – to their own ends, both benefiting from and further propagating interest in things airborne and interplanetary.)


Particularly within science and technology, photography can further be understood as a critical element in a process of discovery, reification and rehearsal. We discern truths about the material world, reaffirm what has been accomplished, and use this as a basis for continuing progress. 19th century studies of the moon, one of which is visible in “Sky Dreamers,” were critical to establishing the beginnings of a knowledge base later necessary to plan the first remote-controlled robotic landing by a spacecraft on another sphere, more than a hundred years later. A grainy two-frame mosaic of a boulder-strewn landscape rimmed by lunar hills, an image taken in June of 1966, helped inaugurate a new genre: extraterrestrial landscape photography conducted by automated machine.[3] (It’s a field brought to new levels of refinement over the last six years by NASA’s twin Mars Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, the first mobile landscape photographers on another world. Like most US robotic spacecraft, the Mars Rovers were designed and built at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.) And these lunar pictures were in turn themselves necessary in the final push to land human beings there, an event accomplished by Apollo 11 in 1969.


This process of landscape and trajectory, of photo-augmented research and then further development, is evident throughout “Sky Dreamers.” The glider experiments of Otto Lilienthal, who made over 2,000 flights from 1891 until his death in a crash in 1896, are documented by eight shots in the show (a couple of which look remarkably as though they had been transposed directly from the inked lines of Leonardo’s notebooks into the silver silt of the photographic medium). These are followed by a pair of prints of similar glider experiments conducted by the Wright Brothers, who credited Lilienthal as being a major source of inspiration in their quest for powered flight; and then finally, the brother’s epochal first flight. The progression here is obvious, and the information-transmission necessary for it was at least partially accomplished by the very photographs on view in the exhibition.


Multiple larger and smaller trajectories arc throughout “Sky Dreamers.” The 1876 photograph of the Moon mentioned above links to a remarkably detailed astronomical plate of the Moon dating from that same inauguratory year of aviation, 1903. In it we see two lunar “seas,” Mare Sernitatis and Mare Tranquillitatis, the future locations for three of the six manned landings, Apollo 11, 15, and 17. This in turn finds resonance in an entertaining picture of a coat-and-tie wearing (museum curator) literally straddling the plaster-relief mountain range between Mare Sernitatis and Mare Umbrium as he touches up the latter’s distinctive Autolycus Crater. His shadow extends upwards towards the Lunar North Pole on a vast, semi-spherical relief map of the Moon’s Earth-facing hemisphere. Neil Armstrong, it seems, was the second man on the moon.


Completing this particular arc, the exhibition then displays three key examples of photographic documentation of Apollo 11. They include two AP wire photos released within five days of the mission’s return to Earth that July 24th. These reproduce frames from an automated 16 mm motion picture camera that documented Armstrong’s first steps on the lunar surface. Unfortunately, the graininess and soft focus of these film stills make them only marginally better than the practically undecipherable live black and white TV pictures of that event, providing further grist for the mill of conspiracy theorists convinced the whole thing was elaborately faked in a film studio. Of course, their apparently impervious theorizing also manages to deny the evidence of innumerable crisp large format Hasselblad frames of this and the other lunar landings and moonwalks; 841.5 lbs of lunar rocks and regolith brought to Earth; the presence of Earth-oriented mirrors at each of the six landing sites, off of which laser light can still be bounced to this day, a process useful in determining the annual rate of our natural satellite’s ongoing drift into a higher orbit; and the largest mystery of all, namely where all those giant five-stage Saturn V rockets were actually going so thunderously, when launched in front of tens of thousands of eye-witnesses, if not the Moon?[4] “Sky Dreamers”’ features a crisp Hasselblad photograph of Buzz Aldrin descending the Lunar Lander’s ladder, a print signed by Aldrin himself. The signature, at least, took place on Earth.


The lunar photography juxtapositions and many others within “Sky Dreamers” provide compelling visual demonstrations of a phenomenon long proposed by some paleoanthropologists and cognitive scientists. According to this theory, humans created tools, which in turn triggered the requisite behavioral and evolutionary changes conducive to further tool use, in a kind of feedback loop whereby each essentially “made” the other. In this view one could argue that while we made tools, tools also made us, who in turn improved upon the former, in a chain of cause and effect extending from pre-history to the present.


In this case, we have the floodlit Moon, that mysteriously inspirational lure hanging in the sky throughout human history; then the first pre-photographic observations of it by Galileo starting 400 years ago, which were accompanied by drawings and maps; then photographic astronomy and the mass reproduction of images, which is where “Sky Dreamers” comes in, and which brought to the wider public the irrefutable reality that another world orbits our own; and then finally the ultimately successful effort to reach that place. Of course it’s not surprising that such comparatively new and potent tools in the human arsenal as photography and film can be seen to have accelerated such processes: apart from constituting a significant instrument in its own right, photography documents the larger rise of an increasingly technology-based, information-mediated civilization.


To put it another way, the medium can’t fail to be the message when the medium’s chief focus is a documentation of its own rise, be that literal or figurative. A remarkable photograph-of-a-photograph – a 1972 picture taken by Apollo 16 astronaut Charles Duke of a snapshot of his family that he has deposited, in a clear plastic bag, on the dusty surface of the moon – both literalizes and underlines this self-referentiality. So do the hauntingly inadvertent self-portraits taken by most of the moonwalking astronauts by the simply device of photographing their crewmates; these shots invariably also captured their own reflections in their counterpart’s helmets.


In the latter category of pictures, which have become so familiar as to make it difficult to consider what their initial impact must have been, the moonwalking astronauts are actually faceless, their features safely shielded from the harsh sun by reflective glass. Instead of eyes returning our gaze we see reflected fisheye views documenting exactly what these astronauts were seeing at the moment the pictures were taken. In film terminology, their POV’s have obscured their faces.[5] In “Sky Dreamers” the most famous of these shots, a portrait of Buzz Aldrin taken by Neil Armstrong (containing, again, an inadvertent self-portrait by Armstrong in Aldrin’s helmet), itself appears on a kitschy 3-D postcard, as if to underline how ubiquitous the image became in the popular culture of the day.


The evolutionary phases documented in the exhibition, which as we’ve seen include both figurative steps towards and literal steps on the moon, contain a fascinating sub-set of fictional (or more accurately, science-fictional) images as well. And here is another place where the rehearsal part of the discovery-reification-rehearsal chain of cause and effect can come into decisive play. There is no more poetic or profound a visual illustration of exactly the phenomenon of tool-use expanding human consciousness than the astonishing jump cut between the flung bone weapon of a prehistoric man-ape and the orbiting spacecraft of 21st century Earthly civilization that links the first and second parts of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. (A poster for the film, centering on space artist Robert McCall’s painting of 2001’s wheel-shaped space station, is on view in the exhibition.)


It’s impossible to overestimate 2001’s influence on a generation already primed to take seriously the possibility of large-scale human expansion off the Earth due to the rapid-fire series of events that had unfolded since the advent of human spaceflight only seven years before the film’s release. (Yuri Gagarin’s first flight into space took place in April 12, 1961; 2001 was released in April of 1968.) These events included John Glenn’s first US orbital flight in February of 1962 (a picture of Glenn lecturing in front of a large American flag can be seen in the show); the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova (visible smiling in her CCCP helmet, though she reportedly didn’t have an easy flight in Vostok 6 in June of 1963); the first orbital rendezvous, between two Gemini capsules, in 1965 (“Sky Dreamers” possesses a picture of the event signed by astronauts Willy Shirra and Tom Stafford, who crewed one of the two capsules), and so forth.


In fact reflections of space exploration in the arts, and specifically in film, may have been even more influential in suggesting a possibility of civilizational expansion off the Earth than actual spaceflight. 2009’s Avatar, in which human colonies on planets of other star systems are depicted as well established, is only the most successful latter day example. Four decades previously, 2001 inaugurated the genre of films in which human spaceflight is routine. Famously opening with a stunning sequence of the Earth rising over the moon, a sight heralded by the pounding drums of Richard Strauss’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 2001’s prediction of the transformative impact of this vista actually predated human experience of it by ten months: the first Earthrise photographs taken by human hands were exposed when Apollo 8 orbited the Moon ten times in December of 1968.[6] Kubrick and his collaborator Arthur C. Clarke correctly intuited that such a sight would possess an unprecedented power for a species that until that month had never traveled higher than a few miles above the home planet’s surface. It’s no exaggeration to say that Apollo 8’s Earthrise image transformed humanity’s sense of its position within the cosmos; the photograph remains a kind of secular-scientific icon.


While 2001’s depiction of a turn-of-the-century space-faring civilization with populous lunar colonies and manned exploratory missions to the planets proved erroneous, the plausibility of its depictions continue to provoke, and many of its predictions did in fact come true. A somewhat beefier version of 2001’s pencil-thin space-plane was in fact constructed in the late 1970’s, and that Space Shuttle is only being retired later this year. The space station that it helped construct, meanwhile, thought not as massive as 2001’s or as capable of providing artificial gravity, is now nearly complete.[7]


“Sky Dreamers” comes replete with the visual record of bodies in motion. Human beings float in balloons, hurtle through the clouds in various aircraft, and finally float in the induced zero gravity of training aircraft and the longer-term weightlessness of orbital and trans-lunar flight. But some of its most significant images were taken far from any air- or spacecraft, and document phenomena far less immediately kinetic – bodies, in fact, of seemingly static grandeur. Interspersed throughout the exhibition’s last quarter are a series of images of such truly deep space phenomena as distant nebulae and galaxies, all taken by the great Earth based observatories. (We also see some of the instruments involved, including the giant 200-inch Hale Telescope photographed in 1949, the year it saw “first light.”)


In far less immediately sensational but certainly no less significant ways than Apollo’s Earthrise images, photography-based astronomy began to revolutionize our understanding of our position within an echoingly vast universe starting in the 1880’s. When combined with the ever-larger resolving power of large telescopes, the long time exposures that astronomical photography afforded permitted unprecedented views into space-time.


The dazzling chain of discoveries that photographic astronomy has unveiled thus began a good two decades before powered flight. The birth of photography is typically understood to have been the unveiling, by the French Academy of Sciences, of artist and chemist Louis Daguerre’s Daguerreotype process in January of 1839. The first astronomical photograph came soon after that announcement. Daguerre owed the adoption and promotion of his process by the Academy to its member Francois Arago, a well-known mathematician, physicist, astronomer, and politician. Soon after the announcement, Arago arranged to bring a couple of scientists over to watch Daguerre at work. Since it was evening, Daguerre decided to try to make a daguerreotype of the moon. When Daguerre finally developed the plate, he discovered that the moon was blurred due to the long exposure time, and he considered the plate a failure. (The photo was soon lost due to a fire in 1839 that destroyed most of Daguerre’s equipment and early work.)


Daguerre’s experience underlines why photography didn’t have a large role to play in astronomy until the 1880’s, when emulsions had become sensitive enough that stars were routinely being discovered using photographic techniques. Ever since then, almost all astronomical discoveries were the result of the marriage of the telescope and photography. Because motor drives can turn telescopes to compensate for the motion of the Earth, long duration astro-photography enables the patient accumulation of interstellar and intergalactic photons, revealing innumerable objects invisible to the human eye even when assisted by the largest telescope. (The more sensitive CCD, or charge-coupled device, replaced classical photographic plates in professional astronomy before the turn of the century. This same device enabled the digital photography revolution of the last decade.)


One of the more abstract of the images to be seen in “Sky Dreamers” is a star-speckled grid; visible in negative, with black dots on a white background, it is Plate 1316 of a 1905 star atlas produced by German astronomer Max Wolf and Austrian astronomer Johann Palisa. A pioneer of what would later become known as astrophotography, Wolf discovered a record-breaking 248 asteroids using plate-based photography, and he also discerned the dim red dwarf star Wolf 369, now thought to be one of the closest stars to our solar system. (While it’s impossible to attempt a quantification of the profound shifts on our cosmological models enabled by photographic astronomy in a text of this length, we can summarize their impact on popular culture simply by quoting the opening lines of George Lucas’s Star Wars franchise, which would have been inconceivable without them: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away.”)


Of all the alpha-omega linkages established by “Sky Dreamers” across the more than two centuries it documents (because the exhibition’s first image isn’t a photograph at all, but rather artist’s depictions of a Montgolfier balloon dating back to 1783 – less than a decade after American independence), none is more provocative in its implications than the fact that its omega end is dominated by nine photographs taken by robotic spacecraft. Tellingly enough, as with contemporary ground-based astronomical image-making we have here moved from photography produced using traditional chemical development processes, which offer a kind of simulacrum of life’s organic chemistry, to images assembled from digital data fired across the breadth of the Solar System in chains of zeroes and ones. (One of these, “Global Dust Storm on Mars,” itself constitutes an assemblage of more than 60 individual Viking Orbiter images and comes from my own book and exhibition project, Beyond: Visions of the Interplanetary Probes.)


With such images we’ve arrived at what may prove to be the end of the remarkable stage of human and technological evolution documented in “Sky Dreamers,” and the beginnings of a next. As the exhibition’s final pictures make clear, we’re already living in an era in which our automated explorers – avatars, literally, of our collective purposes – routinely go where no-one has gone before, taking all the risks, absorbing all the radiation, and transmitting photographs and other data back. In a next great evolutionary stage, our current position as ghosts in the machinery – comfortably Earth-based humans, that is, able to gaze through the portholes of our exceedingly far-flung exploration machines – may become literalized. In this vision of ultimate futurity, our consciousness, our very souls, may one day be given a choice of making a kind of assisted transubstantiation, thereby achieving near-immortality by being effectively uploaded into compound creations of soul and spacecraft. With the prospect of roaming the stars as a lure, not to mention a radical extension of our conscious existence at the end of our natural lives, there might be innumerable takers of such a questionable proposition.


Should such a scenario ever unfold, the long reciprocal parallel evolution of human and tool would finally end with a kind of cosmic Hegelian synthesis – an ultimate coda to The Phenomenology of Spirit. We would then have completed the long terrestrial phase of our transition from “the sea of salt to the sea of stars,” as Arthur C. Clarke once put it. Such a radically transformative expansion of consciousness into an immeasurably vast cosmos, were it to happen, would signify that the long upward trajectory documented in “Sky Dreamers” had achieved its absolute vertiginous apex.

[1] Daniels, a member of the Kill Devil Hills Life-Saving Station, was no photographer, however – in fact this is the only photograph he is known to have taken. Conscious of the necessity of good documentation, Orville Wright had pre-positioned the camera and instructed Daniels to squeeze the bulb triggering the shutter at the right moment.

[2] Clearly digital manipulation has altered our understanding of photography immeasurably in the last decade or more, and even prior to that some totalitarian regimes, among other actors, brought photographic manipulation to a high art. But certainly with scientific photography, including astronomy, and also photography conducted in controlled circumstances or with multiple corroborative camera present, photographic evidence is still largely taken as close to incontrovertible.

[3] These were not the first photographs from the surface of another sphere, however: the Soviet Luna 9 probe had landed five months previously, on February 3rd, 1966, accomplishing the first survivable landing by a spacecraft on the surface of another celestial body and the first extraterrestrial surface photographs as well.

[4] In an entertaining essay titled “Live from the Moon: The Societal Impact of Apollo,” spaceflight historian Andrew Chaiken quotes Norman Mailer on the subject: “It would take criminals and confidence men mightier, more trustworthy and more resourceful than anything in this century or the ones before. Merely to conceive of such men was the surest way to know the event was not staged.” [Norman Mailer, Of a Fire on the Moon (Boston: Little Brown, 1970) pg.130, cited in Societal Impact of Spaceflight, Steven J. Dick and Roger D. Launis, editors (Washington, NASA Office of External Relations History Division, 2007), pg. 64.] Chaiken follows that by quoting Neil Armstrong as having commented simply that “It would have been harder to fake it than to do it” in a personal communication in 2003.

[5] POV being shorthand for “point of view” shot.

[6] Both US and Soviet robotic missions had sent black and white images of the sight back to Earth previously, however.

[7] Fans of the predictive powers and continuing validity of 2001 will find it interesting that the ultra-thin touch screen tablet computer used by the Jupiter-bound astronauts in the film has finally achieved commercial release with the Apple iPad, nine years after it was supposed to have been in regular use.

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