Suddenly, from behind the rim of the Moon, in long, slow‐motion moments of immense majesty, there emerges a sparkling blue and white jewel, a light, delicate sky‐blue sphere laced with slowly swirling veils of white, rising gradually like a small pearl in a thick sea of black mystery. It takes more than a moment to fully realise this is Earth…home. Edgar Mitchell (b.1930), Apollo 14
Encountering the Astronomical Sublime: Vintage NASA Photographs 1961 ‐ 1980 follows the critical success of For All Mankind: Vintage NASA Photographs 1964 – 1983 (January – February 2014) and addresses the ‘sublime’ in historic NASA photography. The sublime is perceived in the presence of power, awe and scale, and felt in the sensation of helplessness at the realisation of our own insignificance. And yet it entails a sense of empowerment as we measure, map, quantify and record, seeking to understand the mysteries of the solar system and the universe through science, logic and technology.
The exhibition borrows its title from Elizabeth Kessler’s publication Picturing the Cosmos: Hubble Space Telescope Images and the Astronomical Sublime (2012). Kessler establishes the sublime as an integral conceptual framework for interpreting Hubble Space Telescope images due to the manner in which they are produced and released by NASA. The incomprehensible scale of astronomical phenomena and energy wavelengths unperceivable to the human eye, are selected, framed, layered and artificially coloured to create intentionally beautiful images of the cosmos. Far from objective records, they are crafted to epitomise an unknowable grandeur.
The pursuit of the sublime in NASA photography is, however, guided by fiscal motives as the release of carefully composed images by the Hubble Heritage Project is part of a much wider campaign to enchant the taxpayer. Images are far greater ambassadors for public expenditure than huge swathes of raw astronomical data, a fact embraced and exploited by NASA’s public relations department for over half a century. So while the most aesthetically arresting images released by NASA might retain an air of jovial naivety, or a childlike abandon spent on the surface of the moon, their beauty is not purely incidental.
This new collection features over 80 vintage photographic works, including a unique tiled mosaic composed of 76 individual two inch‐square black and white photographs, as well as rare medium format (28 x 35 cm) and regular format (20 x 25 cm) vintage photographs. The selected images have significant aesthetic merit beyond their primary function as documentation, whether through careful framing or cropping, atmospheric light effects, a compelling sense of scale and grandeur or geological formations which border on the abstract. Subjects include the Sun, Venus, the Earth, the Moon, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter, with photographs taken as part of the Surveyor, Lunar Orbiter, Gemini, Apollo, Mariner, Viking, Voyager and Skylab missions.
The sublime in NASA photographs from the 1960s and 70s, the Hubble Space Telescope and Hubble Heritage Project and, more recently, those captured by the Curiosity Rover on Mars, is a vital component of their production and function. Kessler presents compelling and extensive links between the Romantic landscapes of the American West, captured and depicted in the late nineteenth century by painters Thomas Moran (1837 – 1926) and Albert Bierstadt (1830 – 1902) and photographers William Henry Jackson (1843 – 1942) and Timothy O’Sullivan (1840 – 1882). Embracing the majesty of their subject, these artists developed a visual language of the sublime which Kessler identifies in the Hubble Heritage Project images. The influence of iconic landscape photographer Ansel Adams (1902 – 1984) is likewise discernible in NASA photography from both past and present missions.
Breese Little are delighted to present this new exhibition following the significant acclaim of For All Mankind: Vintage NASA Photographs 1964 – 1983 (January – February 2014), which included press coverage across The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, CBS, BBC Mundo, NBC News, Shortlist, Metro, Daily Mail Online, Elephant, Monocle, Port, Esquire, Buzz Feed UK, Photomonitor, History Revealed, ArtLyst, Juxtapoz, Le Cool, The Atlantic, Co.Design, Gizmodo and The Escapist. The collection was also exhibited at Photo Shanghai, a new art fair dedicated to photography in September 2014.
The exhibition is accompanied by the collateral event Cosmic Sublime: Awe and Wonder in NASA Photography with Dr Marek Kukula, Public Astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich on Wednesday 1 October, 7 pm. Marek is a judge for the Observatory’s Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition and curated the highly acclaimed Visions of the Universe exhibition in 2013, described by Jonathan Jones (The Guardian) as ‘the most beautiful and significant exhibition I have seen in ages.’
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