An Introduction to Celestography

The term “Celestograph” was first used in the 1890’s by August Strindberg, a Swedish playwright. Strindberg laid out a series of photographic plates on the ground, hoping to capture scenes of the night sky. Of course, Strindberg did not capture scenes of the night sky, but instead created what we would now describe as a “chemigram”, an image that is created by chemicals interacting with photosensitive emulsions. These photosensitive plates were not designed to be left outside exposed to the elements and thus reacted strangely, resulting in these beautiful images...

So what actually is a Celestograph?
To answer this question, let us briefly return to the etymology of the word “photography”.
The word photography is an amalgamation of the Greek word photos meaning light andgraphe meaning drawing. In it’s most fundamental sense, photography simply means “to draw with light”.

If we then apply the same logic as used for photography, celestography means “to draw from heaven”. The etymological origin of the word “celestial” comes from the latin “cealum” and is the source of the usual word for “sky” in most latin-based languages.
In modern times, the term “celestial” is most commonly used to describe astronomical objects, such as stars or planets. A celestial object exists outside of Earth’s stratosphere, beyond the reach of the sky.

In this blog, I will use the term “celestograph” to examine a series of images and recordings which have been written by celestial objects. The aim of this collection of texts will be to understand how various forms of celestographs are mediated with various technical processes.

For example, in the case of Andrew Ainslee Common’s photograph of The Great Nebula in Orion, light travelled over 1500 years to reach the glass plate coated, which was coated with silver halides suspended in a gelatinous substance. Celestial light was able to interact directly with matter to create a physical object, mediated only by a telescope lens and atmospheric disturbances.

To me, The Great Nebula In Orion is a perfect example of a celestograph, an image created by an interaction with a celestial object.

As an artist, I have created a number of my own celestographs using various processes. With my limited means and resources, I have experimented with the following techniques:

Star Trails on 120mm Film
Analogue photographs and prints created using ancient light from the stars to affect photosensitive emulsion.

A photographic print created using ultraviolet light from the Sun to affect photosensitive emulsions.

A long exposure pinhole photograph print which is written by the light of the Sun, moving through the landscape.

The Pulsar Oscillograph
An installation and film which transforms pulsar recordings into a wave form, which is then used to create a laser oscillograph installation. This is currently in development with Space Studios. 

Photo-etchings created using powdered meteorite fragments.

During my course study at the Royal College of Art, I hope to visit a number of observatories around the world to find out how celestographs are currently being made. For example, how do astronomers interact with unrepresentable and unimaginable phenomena existing in the universe, and present their findings as proof?

From undertaking this body of research, I would like to understand how direct astronomical recordings are and how many processes raw data has to undertake before being published. In this course of study, I intend to explore the possibilities of making celestographs myself, during residencies in dark-sky spaces and at observatories around the world. The practice-based element of my research is highly important, as it enables me to understand how these mediation processes work in fine detail.

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