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

Objectivity and Aesthetics

Academic researchers have recently started to question whether scientific study can ever be purely objective. The documents and images in the photographic collections of the Lick Observatory provide an interesting case study for this question. For the Observatory's early astronomers, observing the cosmos seems to be an inherently aesthetic experience which colors even their most objective efforts at observation and representation.  Their desire to generate public interest through visually stunning images often mediates their efforts to produce objective pieces of data.

We see astronomers working between two methods of recording the cosmos--illustration and photography. In their scrapbooks and copybooks, we sense an aesthetic impulse to record the beauty of the cosmos alongside its mathematical and physical properties. In their letters to photogravure companies, we see them constructing ideas about what celestial bodies should look like, often speaking of the images they want to produce in terms of aesthetic expectations and preferences. Accordingly, we see that these supposedly objective photographic images often embed an affective reaction to the cosmos, such as awe, or the experience of sublimity described by nineteenth-century philosophers of nature. These documents and images also speak to the way in which the ideal of pure objectivity is negotiated by the material conditions and limitations of the camera and of the printing process. 


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