Firmament: An Incalculable Distance
I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.
Sitting under a clear night sky and gazing at the stars must be fundamental to the human experience. We have been doing it for as long as people have recorded their own history, and it stands to reason that we were doing it long before written language emerged. The view out into the cosmos, the unimaginable distance and beauty, have made poets of some, scientists of others. My work has been about the place where the artist and the astronomer intersect.
A few years ago, I began photographing 19th century star charts. I was drawn to them for both their beauty and their limitations. These celestial maps were often produced as engravings, and the tactile quality they possess is rich and seductive. The charts are also a reminder of the Cartesian model we have inherited for describing the known universe. They are finite schematics that attempt to describe the infinite, the place where science intrudes upon the ineffable. I was fascinated by the idea that humans could attempt to create maps that described, literally, everything.
With the star charts as a guide, I was interested placing them in dialogue with other images, often of the seemingly uncelebrated minutia of everyday life. So the vegetable garden that my wife and I maintain became a point of reference, as did walks I would take with my young son, along our favorite stretch of Bear Creek Canyon. The frost that had accumulated on the windshield of my car overnight, or the scattering of fall leaves on the patio table: all of this found its way into conversation with the old celestial maps.
What emerged was surprising: image sequences that were more poetic than didactic, inviting a very different reading of those schematic drawings of the heavens. Instead of trying to describe the proper placement of objects in the universe, I think these image groupings reveal the relationship between places, no matter how large or small the distance. And it is important to note that these photographic sequences have not been digitally altered to create fantastical collages. Rather, they were carefully selected and sequenced to be in dialogue with one another, so the merging that appears to take place between them becomes a visual trick of the eye. Viewed in this way, each autonomous image in the sequence begins to lose its singularity, the Firmament asserting itself as an impossibly complex and interconnected whole. As Job said after his encounter with the Whirlwind, “I have spoken of the unspeakable and tried to grasp the infinite. Therefore I will be quiet, comforted that I am dust.” The dust of the earth is also the dust of the stars, the fundamental building blocks of the universe present in us all.