Thinking Space and Deep Space
As a child, I learned that the haunting, hypnotic wails emanating from the empty frequencies on the old radio set in the living room was a symphony performed by the Earth, solar system, and the cosmos. I would spend hours, carefully turning the dials, listening to the ‘tweeks’, whistlers and sferics, as they are called. A while later, I also discovered that some of the snow, static and hiss on empty TV screens (the time of black and white television, when a terrace antenna was required to receive a good signal) were from outer space. It was not as fascinating as the radio, but it made me wonder what was out there. Television also brought Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, and Star Wars hit movie theaters.
Every time Captain James T Kirk would give the command to ‘engage’ the warp drive of the USS Enterprise, turning starfields into impossible streaks of light, my schoolboy fantasies flew with him. I would explore strange new worlds, and boldly go where no man had gone before. Later, Arthur C Clarke’s eerily detailed descriptions in his 1968 sci-fi book 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Stanley Kubrick’s fantastic visualisation brought me closer home, to Saturn and Iapetus, Jupiter and Europa. On September 10, 2007, to mark the Cassini spacecraft’s flyby just 1000 kilometers off Iapetus (Iapetus was discovered by Giovanni Cassini in 1671), 90-year-old Arthur C Clarke recorded a video greeting to NASA, from his home in Sri Lanka. “When Cassini was launched, we knew of only 18 moons. I understand it is now 60, and counting. I can’t resist the temptation to say: My God, it’s full of moons!” he said, referring to a famous dialogue from his book. How strange it is to find that reality is not all that far from fiction.
Of course, there could be no sound in space, as belted out by the audio tracks in the movies. Yet, my radio at home sang the tune of the stars. The coming of photography changed a lot of things. For one, the limits of a viewfinder made me more of a realist (in some ways) and I started thinking in terms of fractions of a second. Astrophotography differs in the conventional use of the medium in two important ways. Firstly, what you capture is not measured in milliseconds and finite space, but often in hours, years, and light years. And it could be from hundreds of years in the past. Second, you need at least a couple of years of dedicated learning, very careful adherence to technique, and a lot of attention to detail before you manage to make a passable image with an understanding of what you have captured. For most of us regular photographers, it is easy enough to snap away the minute we lift a camera from its box. But then again, it takes years to master ways of seeing, and to develop a language of visual expression.
Putting this issue together opened the eyes of the BP team to what exists beyond. We hope you enjoy it too.
This article originally appeared in the February 2016 issue of Better Photography.Tags: K Madhavan Pillai, Edit note, February 2016