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

Objectivity and Aesthetics

These documents and images displayed in these paths ask us to consider whether observing the cosmos is an inherently aesthetic experience that colors even the most objective efforts at observation and representation. 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. The desire for visually stunning images often mediates the effort to produce objective pieces of data. 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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