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

Creating the Images

In his copybook, 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. Barnard, pictured here in the late hours of the night wearing his "Esquimaux coat" to stay warm, also discusses the difficulty of capturing light and the labor of the photographic process, in his 1913 book Photographs of the Milky Way and of Comets.

Most of the images produced at the Lick were recorded as negatives on glass plates coated with photosensitive chemicals. After working through the night to expose the plates, astronomers often continued to work into the morning, developing the negatives they had created. They often found that the images were overexposed, underexposed, or blurry. Part of the drive toward creating more "objective" images involved reducing human contact with the telescopes by mechanizing them.

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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