See the moon? The Celestial and the Circular in Photography
I look someone in the eyes: either those eyes are cast down — and this is modesty, that is, modesty for the emptiness lurking behind the gaze — or they look back at me.
— Giorgio Agamben
I look at the orb. The orb looks at me. Or stares, should I say. We stare at each other, the orb and I. Behind it, a winter scene — wide grey sky, forested mountains covered in snow.
I believe this image: its cool, pallid tones, its calm, placid tenor. But what of the orb, the large white circle that hovers at its centre, paused in the middle of the sky? It snags the gaze, a cataract lens.
I blink again.
As if the orb will disappear, as if the sky will magically clear.
Where the landscape is in three dimensions, the orb appears to be flat — pressed flush, full-bodied, heavy-weighted against my vision. Its flatness foregrounds the foreground. This air is not empty space, it seems to say: this air is portentous, full of meaning. The orb looks like it is made of paper — and yet, how could such a delicate thing remain aloft so? Would it not be battered and torn, offset by the merest breeze?
Station II. The orb is grubby and faded around the edges, not white, but grey — as though worn and weathered, assembled by countless hands. I imagine it has witnessed many things during its station here. A station — to station — an observation. And now I am stationed here, too: watching, waiting, anticipating. No matter how hard I look, how long I wait, the eye before me, though blank and wide, stays shut: the oculi obscures, will always occlude the central portion, the focal point, the iris. A clouded blankness of eye-balling skies.
I look at the orb. The orb looks at me.
But perhaps the eye deceives — perhaps it is not flat. Perhaps the orb does not stay here, perhaps it moves — it is dirigible, a dirigible! Perhaps, if I wait long enough, it will leave — the orb will depart to reveal whatever sits just behind. Just behind, just beneath the surface of the surface. I wonder if there is a there there.
In 1863, the photographer Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon) commissioned prominent balloonist Eugène Godard to construct a 196-foot high balloon, which he called Le Géant. Nadar took Le Géant all over Europe, hovering above countless cities to pioneer the first instances of aerial photography. In a now-famous caricature, ‘Nadar elevating Photography to Art’, Honoré de Daumier pictures a wiry Nadar tensely perched in the basket of his balloon as it tilts precariously in the wind. His top hat has been lost to the air and hovers mid-escape above his attentively hunched body. Beneath him, across the top of every building below — Sacré Coeur just visible in the distance — is written PHOTOGRAPHIE.
Following its second launch, Le Géant ultimately crashed in Hanover, leaving Nadar with a fractured leg. The photographer deemed the balloon, made of 20,000 metres of silk, unsuitably light, and — with Jules Verne — founded ‘The Society for the Encouragement of Aerial Locomotion by Means of Heavier than Air Machines’. But for a brief moment, Nadar was airborne — in flight — above it all — peering down at the world through the eye of his black box camera, a wet-plate Cyclops.
What would it have looked like, the giant, Le Géant, the enormous, silk balloon? Would the fabric have churned and eddied in the breeze? Would the basket have whipped wildly from side-to-side? Or would all have been calm and peaceful — soft ripples — a pause, a caesura — up there, so high above the earth. A sigh, an exhalation, a suspension, stationary, a station.
It’s true, in any case, that the air can sometimes feel very heavy. Or dense, should I say. The air is dense; we seek heavier means of navigation. The light is full of shadows; we devise more precise means of preservation.
In comparison with the long history of astronomy, that of photography is incredibly brief — blink and you could miss it. And yet the two share a great deal, in both technical detail and thematic concerns. Perhaps the eyepiece of the former long-lens telescoped into the viewfinder of the latter — a smooth orbit. Looking in, looking out: the observatory, the camera obscura.
Enter the darkened room, approach the aperture, the eye, and dare to gaze at what it beholds. Wait long enough, let the light sink in — seconds, minutes, hours, days — light — years — until the image is transfixed, solidifies, becomes an object, a meaningful reflection.
Inclusum labor illustrat; it is because I am enclosed that I work and glow with all my desire.
— Roland Barthes
An aperture is a space, an opening, a gap in something otherwise solid. Through the aperture, through a glass darkly — pinhole camera — we are able to circumscribe, to scrutinize, to magnify. But an aperture is also a hole, as in a puncture — that which pierces. Aperture is synonymous with eye. And indeed, we know vision to be a tentative, tenuous thing — a hole that is not a hole — the eye is capable of sight and blindness in equal measure.
Station V. A hole that is not a hole. The moon passes in front of the sun. It appears as a black disc encircled by a halo of light, like smoke, solar flares licking at the darkened surrounding sky. Dangerous to behold, for the light — though ostensibly veiled — continues to radiate: it will transfix, burn the retina: the unholy vision destroys vision.
Until a short while ago, I was — in fact — under the impression that an eclipse was a kind of supernatural event. When I was ten years old, there was a total eclipse visible in Ontario, 10 May 1994. Tuesday, a school day. At my school, all of the students were forced to remain in the gymnasium-cum-cafeteria for the duration of the eclipse. We sat silently, the windows entirely blocked off by large sheets of thick cardboard: to protect us, they said. This event, in conjunction with a 1980s Disney film called Watcher in the Woods, in which the event of a solar eclipse brings to terrifying fruition a decades old mystery of death and paranormal occurrences, produced in me the notion that if you were exposed to a solar eclipse — if you were literally anywhere the sun could see you, whether you were looking at it or not — its rays would seek your eyes and bore into them: you would be immediately struck blind.
I have since been disabused of the notion, but in another sense, in another medium, the question endures: how to trap the light — how to hold it — carefully — and at just the right angle. Don’t burn the plate, the image will be bleached white, exposed beyond recognition, erased, blinded. Heliography, used to describe the earliest photographic process, comes from helios, sun + graphein, to write. Press too hard and you’ll tear the paper.
Like the sun, the moon has similarly been associated with looking, or the eye. Think of the famous scene in Dali and Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou: a night sky with a full moon, long trails of cloud moving quickly — one cleanly bisects the glowing white orb. Cut to a woman with her eye being peeled open by a man whose hand holds a straight razor — as she stares directly into the camera, the blade moves towards her face in a neat horizontal line. Decades earlier, George Meliès’ A Trip to the Moon features a moon with an incredibly animated human face — heavily textured, high ridges, deep craters. When the expedition finally launches, it rockets directly into the moon’s eye and remains lodged tightly within its socket. The moon, bless him, seems strangely nonplussed.
The sun, the moon, stars, nebulae, galaxies — all have been referred to as ‘eyes’, by layperson and scientist alike. It would be easy to speculate that the comparisons, similes, metaphors — when the moon hits your eye, etc. — are due to visual similarity alone. But there is something else: a kind of scopophilia. Things we look at, incline our heads, gaze, peer. Things that look back at us; things that are always watching — permanent fixtures, glittering in the firmament.
“See the moon? It hates us.”
— Donald Barthelme
And why wouldn’t it? At Station V, there are ropes holding the moon in place. They were there too, the ropes, at the other station, with its distant mountain ranges and its wide, white sky. I ignored them, dreaming instead of movement and flight. They were faint enough — their fastening holes slight, barely visible around the circumference, and easy to overlook. But here, the moon is undeniably fixed in place, pinned to the page — tethered to a frame somewhere just outside of the frame.
And why not? Photographers have long desired it so. Like astronomers, they trained their sights on the moon — fixed through lenses — imprinted on silver-plate, wet-plate, paper — stereoscope, heliograph, photogravure, astrophoto.
The earliest surviving image of the moon was made in 1840 by American photographer and scientist J.W. Draper. It must have been a long exposure, the object, with its refracted source of light, and at such a great distance. A few years later, scientists Hippolyte Fizeau and Leon Foucault photographed the sun. Unlike Draper’s image, which is full of detail — craggy surfaces and craters, mountain ranges and pits contoured in shadow, hints of the dark side of the moon — the sun is a perfect white circle with just two small clusters of black marks: sun spots on the surface of the star. The brighter something burns, the darker it will appear, until everything turns black.
In Elisabeth Bishop’s poem ‘The Man-Moth’, the titular figure emerges from beneath the sidewalks nightly, to contemplate the moon — he scales the faces of the buildings, nervously reaching for the sky:
Up the façades,
his shadow dragging like a photographer’s cloth behind him
he climbs fearfully, thinking that this time he will manage
to push his head through that round clean opening
and be forced through, as from a tube, in black scrolls on the light.
One could forgive him the misunderstanding. Black on white. White on black. The light emitting object reverses, eclipses itself in positive and negative. A hole that is not a hole. Perhaps he has transposed the alchemy of the camera to the celestial: a vision becomes real, takes on new properties and dimensions, set in light and dark, deep shades of grey.
Station IV and the stars are out in full force. Beneath them, a rocky planetary ground glitters in the half-light. In the lower-right quadrant of the sky is a radiant cluster where the light is snagged, caught — held, preserved: a handful of gems against the obsidian sky, winking, precious. Is it the Crux? Alpha, beta, gamma, delta, and epsilon cruces — the Southern Cross, cross-hairs, the brightest stars in the Milky Way, easily visible from the southern hemisphere at any time of year? Carro dell’ostro, the ancient navigators called it, ‘southern chariot’: follow it, follow it anywhere and everywhere. The brightest point is Alpha Crucis — blue-tinged, a triple star. Reach out and place your right hand against the sky, make a fist, clench your hand tightly and align the first knuckle with the axis of the cross. Follow the tip of your thumb to find south.
We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.
— Oscar Wilde
Stars like images, images like stars: we study them as guides, as truths — means of navigation, alignment, orientation. We try to read them for what they might reveal about the past, present, future. We chart points of meaning and hold the papers in our hands, tightly; the corners and edges become worn with use.
But light, or should I say illumination, always betrays itself. Blinking past the stars, peering closely into the darkness and I can see a faint circle, a careful incision of light that circumscribes this portion of the glittering firmament. And beyond it, the surrounding blackness has a different, deeper, starless quality. I have been mistaken, dazzled by the constellations. I see now that it is a discus, a saucer, a belt, a ring, a record of stars — not lodged, but suspended within the night sky: a hook and chain above, a tripod below hold it in place. This piece of sky is flat and solid, pierced with stars that act as vehicles for another source of light, unseen from where I stand shrouded in an invisible projected focus hood.
How easy it is to forget that, like meaning, photographs are not taken, but made. To look, to observe, to behold one’s station is to be suspended: a suspension — of — time — space — disbelief. To see is not to believe. Or should I say to not believe. Think of the Apollo lunar photographs, contested to this day. The shadows don’t fit! Too long, conflicting light sources! We couldn’t see the stars! What a great deal we want from the things we perhaps don’t quite understand
Why should I feel lonely? Is not our planet in the Milky Way?
— Henry David Thoreau
These balloons, eclipses, constellations — blind, haloed, and punctured with light — keep us on the ground, dreaming of what we cannot reach. They remind, aides-mémoires, they whisper: you, me, I, we are the stations. Any thing, they say, every thing may be eclipsed and overshadowed, if for a moment only. We thereby know its properties, magnitude in lack, and then in restoration. In the ability of things to come full circle: light — darkness — vision. The casual sublimity of the orb, the exquisite tyranny of the eclipse: no beginning or end, all beginnings and ends, in the same, breathtaking trajectory.
On the far side of the moon there is a crater called Niepce, named after Joseph Niécephore Niépce, inventor of heliography and the oldest surviving photograph. It is a worn crater formation, ‘with rim features that have been softened and rounded by subsequent deposits of ejecta’. It is a careful, patient activity, to observe the features of the moon: one must follow the border of the sun’s illumination, the thin region between darkness and light where the shadows are longest — the shadow terminator, this place is called. In Niepce, it has been observed, there is a small crater shaped like a teardrop, likely created by a low-angle impact.
Tell me again, I ask the stations — tell me again how nothing is as it seems. Show me how fine a thing it is to spend one’s time securing moments of illumination for safe-keeping. Convince me — I want to believe — that every twinkling trace, every glance of light is an inscription, a burnishing, a tiny percussion in the surface of time: a still life, memento mori, to its passage. Take me there.
– Emily LaBarge
Emily LaBarge is a writer based in London, where she teaches at the Royal College of Art.
Agamben, G., ‘The Face’ in Means Without End: Notes on Politics, trans. by Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino (Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota Press, 2000)
Barthes, R., ‘Leaving the Movie Theatre’, in The Rustle of Language, trans. by Richard Howard (Berkeley; Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989)
Barthelme, D., ‘See the Moon?’, in Sixty Stories (London: Penguin, 2003)
Bishop, E., ‘The Man-Moth’, in Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters (New York: The Library of America, 2008)
Wilde, O., Lady Windermere’s Fan, in The Collected Works of Oscar Wilde (Ware: Wordsworth Editions, 2009)
Thoreau, H. D., ‘Solitude’, in Walden, ed. by Joseph Wood Krutch (New York: Bantam, 1962)