READ: 'Picturing the Cosmos', Elizabeth A. Kessler, 2012

We say: "An unusual book combining Hubble Space Telescope photography with art historical analysis. It inspired our exhibition Encountering the Astronomical Sublime: Vintage NASA Photographs 1961 - 1980, which borrowed its title from Kessler’s publication Picturing the Cosmos: Hubble Space Telescope Images and the Astronomical Sublime (2012). Kessler establishes the sublime as an integral conceptual framework for interpreting Hubble Space Telescope images due to the manner in which they are produced and released by NASA. The incomprehensible scale of astronomical phenomena and energy wavelengths unperceivable to the human eye, are selected, framed, layered and artificially coloured to create intentionally beautiful images of the cosmos. Far from objective records, they are crafted to epitomise an unknowable grandeur. The pursuit of the sublime in NASA photography is, however, guided by fiscal motives as the release of carefully composed images by the Hubble Heritage Project is part of a much wider campaign to enchant the taxpayer. Images are far greater ambassadors for public expenditure than huge swathes of raw astronomical data, a fact embraced and exploited by NASA’s public relations department for over half a century. So while the most aesthetically arresting images released by NASA might retain an air of jovial naivety, or a childlike abandon spent on the surface of the moon, their beauty is not purely incidental."

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A revealing look at the Romantic impulse behind the Hubble telescope’s awe-inspiring deep space images

Picturing the Cosmos examines the Hubble’s deep space images, highlighting the resemblance they bear to nineteenth-century paintings and photographs of the American West and their invocation of the visual language of the sublime. Strikingly illustrated, this book reveals the scientific, aesthetic, and cultural significance of the Hubble pictures, offering an understanding of how they shape our ideas about the cosmos.


Henry Little