Reading Nature, Observing Science: Examining Material Practices in the Lick Observatory Archives and Kenneth S. Norris Papers

Creating the Images

In his copybook, astronomer Charles D. Perrine wrote an early reflection on astrophotography, one page of which is displayed in the gallery above. He discusses the difficulty of capturing the light of nebulae, noting that the action of guiding the telescope often resulted in the loss of structural detail. Edward Barnard, pictured here wearing his "Esquimaux coat" to stay warm in the late hours of the night, also discusses the labor of the photographic process in his 1913 book Photographs of the Milky Way and of Comets. He notes that the light of comets was especially difficult to capture, their tails often appearing "ragged" in the images due to the motion of the telescope.

Most of the images produced at the Lick were recorded on glass plates coated with photosensitive chemicals. They were created as positives or negatives depending on the emulsion process in use. After working through the night to expose the plates, astronomers often continued to work into the morning to develop the images. They often found that the hours they spent at the telescope had been wasted: the exposure time had been too short or too long, or the telescope had not been guided carefully enough. Part of the drive toward creating more "objective" images involved reducing human contact with the telescopes by automating the guiding process.

In the gallery above, we present images that are perhaps less visually stunning than others available in the archive, but that speak to this labor, as well as the material limitations of the camera for capturing detail and light. Astronomers at the Lick created thousands of images, but as many were rejected along these lines, the archives in UCSC Special Collections contain relatively few images. Additionally, many of the original glass negatives are still housed on the grounds of the Lick Observatory.


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