Photographer to the Stars

Bibliologue / by Veronique Greenwood /

Famed space photographer David Malin talks about why his new compilation, Ancient Light, is in black and white and on the role of aesthetics in astronomy.

The Horsehead Nebula. Photograph by David Malin

In the 1970s astronomer and photographer David Malin became the first person to photograph the faint colors of the night sky. His pictures taken from the Anglo-Australian Observatory have become the canonical images of many celestial sites, from the Horsehead Nebula to our nearest-neighbor galaxies. Now the architect of space color has published Ancient Light, a book of black-and-white prints that includes his shots of the surface of the moon, the Corona Australis nebula, and beyond. These stark and lovely images often recall lace spread across a coal-black surface (galaxy NGC 300) or handfuls of ash-colored silk bunched on an inky table (the Lagoon nebula). Seed editor Veronique Greenwood spoke with Malin about why he abandoned color in his latest collection, the role aesthetics plays in astronomy, and how the field of astrophotography has changed in his three-decade career.

Seed: You’ve written vividly about the importance of color in astronomy, and you’re widely known for having developed a way to capture the colors of stars. Why a book in black and white?
David Malin: When I started doing photography in the late 1950s, it was essentially all black and white. You could create your own images in the darkroom fairly easily, and that creative process was very rewarding because you could make a picture say exactly what you wanted it to say. I’ve gone back to my roots here to explore again the nice tonal ranges and structures you can fish out in black and white. It’s a kind of journey back. And when I first remember looking at science books as a child, all the galaxies and star forming regions were in black and white. So it’s also nostalgic in a way.

Seed: What was the practice of astronomical photography like when you first arrived at the Anglo-Australian Observatory in the 1970s?
DM: It was a challenge. The technology was new to me, and the business of preparing photographic material before use was quite complicated. It involved baking these big glass plates in an oven for a few hours in the dark, and then giving them a big dose of hydrogen for a few hours, and then using them in the telescope a few hours later because they didn’t last long after that. And all of this had to be done just to gather extra faint light through very long exposures, which lasted an hour or more. This process was quite challenging and fascinating, but I enjoyed it and got it to work. And I even became a bit of a guru at it.

Seed: Most photographs of the night sky are mosaics of many smaller images, but yours are all single shots. How is your process different?
DM:  My photographs are taken on glass plates 14 or 10 inches square. The solid-state detectors that are now used to take digital pictures now are the size of big postage stamps—half a bank note if you get a large one. That’s much smaller than the plates I used, so you have to photograph the sky in sections. It’s a perfectly respectable way of working, but from an aesthetic point of view, it’s not very satisfactory, and it all happens at a computer, which changes the feel of the process.

Seed:  Modern light-sensitive materials, known as solid-state detectors, are used in digital imaging. How does this process compare to film photography?
DM:  Film is actually a solid-state detector, too. There are tiny particles of silver chloride and bromide in it, and these are sensitive to light. They capture the light’s energy, and you release the image by plunging the film into a sea of electrons known as a developer.

With digital imagery, you use a different kind of solid-state detector, a kind of doped silicon chip. Instead of being developed, the photoelectrons are collected in the pixels and then read out by a computer so you get an array of images on your screen. The digital version gives you many more opportunities for manipulation, translation, addition, and general handling. But analog photography has some special qualities. It strongly over-samples: There are many more samples per unit area than you get with digital photography. That gives you some leeway and a wonderful plasticity in images that you don’t really see with digital pictures.

Seed: You mention in the introduction to Ancient Light that astronomers were midwives at the birth of photography in some sense. What did you mean by that exactly?
DM: When the daguerreotype—the first photograph—was invented in the 1840s, it was Francois Arago, a famous French physicist and astronomer, who persuaded the French government to give its inventor a pension if he released the information about the daguerreotype to the world at large, which was a very unusual step in those days. And it was John Herschel, another famous astronomer, who invented the photographic fixer that really makes photography possible. There have been light-sensitive materials around since the time of Adam—literally, as apple skin is light-sensitive—but no way of fixing that image, making it permanent. John Herschel invented a way of doing that. Two astronomers were intimately involved with the beginnings, so it’s quite appropriate that photography should have transformed astronomy once it got working really well.

Seed: And how has digital photography transformed your field?
DM: The Hubble Space Telescope wouldn’t be possible without digital photography. You’d never get any information back from it. You can’t imagine it squirting canisters of film out to the void. There were some satellites that used film. In the 1960s a lunar surveyor went to the moon and it used film to record the image, process it, scan it on board the satellite, and send the scan back to earth by radio transmission. So that was a kind of hybrid, and it worked fairly well.

Seed: Who should we be watching in the world of astronomical photography today?
DM: I’ve been really impressed by the Cassini group, which manages the satellite out by Saturn. Those are some unabashedly beautiful images they’re returning. One of the key people there is Carolyn Porco. She has a real eye for aesthetics and it shows in all of their stuff.

Seed: It sounds like aesthetics has a pretty significant role in astronomy. How does it influence what you capture?
DM: The thing is, scientific data is made for science, but it can also be aesthetically pleasing. The science isn’t compromised by this. What I’ve aimed for with all of my pictures is to make them scientifically useful while keeping an eye out for aesthetics as well.

Originally published June 24, 2009

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