As a person with a lifelong interest in the American West, I am very familiar with the paintings of artists such as Thomas Moran and Charlie Russell. Like the books of Louis L’Amour or the films that John Wayne made with John Ford, they represent an idealized vision of the West. Since the launch of the Hubble telescope in 1990, we have been treated to some extraordinary images of deep space. In her new book, Picturing the Cosmos: Hubble Space Telescope Images and the Astronomical Sublime, author Elizabeth Kessler draws some fascinating parallels between the imagery of the two frontiers.
When one sees something like the image of the Orion Nebula (1995) juxtaposed with Moran‘s The Chasm of the Colorado (1873), the connection is obvious. Still, it is not something I would have thought of without seeing the two side by side. With picture after picture, the author presents her case, and the symmetry between the visuals is remarkably consistent. It is also a little spooky, as one realizes that the Western artists could have never seen anything like the Hubble images before. Their choices of colors and composition were clearly their own.
While the main point of the book is to discuss the similarities between the Hubble images, and paintings of the American West, there is more. Kessler delves into the history of the telescope itself, leading all the way up to the launch of the Hubble. She also makes an intriguing claim regarding the “marketing juggernaut of NASA.“ Kessler believes that this is a major factor behind the ubiquitous nature of the Hubble images over those of other long-range telescopes.
During the chapter titled “Translating Data,” the author drills down to the root of the situation, and offers some reasons for the similarities. The raw materials that are sent back from Hubble are not exactly photographs, but rather data. This is interpreted by scientists who make choices regarding contrast, color, and composition. The human factor exists no matter what we would like to believe. The fact that many Hubble images share qualities with those of the paintings of the Romantic era could have something to do with the predilections of the interpreters.
While Kessler acknowledges this possible bias, in the end it really does not matter. Picturing the Cosmos is both an art and a science book, but the emphasis is clearly on the art. These visions are gorgeous, and their similarities to the paintings of the Romantics, and of the Old West in particular are highly intriguing.
My main interest in this book was the Hubble pictures themselves, and there are a great number of them included here. The comparisons between those, and the paintings and photographs of the American West, make the case for a certain, almost universal, idea of what the “frontier” looks like. Picturing the Cosmos is an exquisite-looking and very thought-provoking book.