How the James Webb Deep Field Images Reminded Me the Divide Between Science and Art is Artificial

The first task I give photography students is to create a starscape. To do this, I ask them to sweep the floor below them, collect the dust and dirt in a paper bag, then sprinkle it on a sheet of 8×10 inch photo paper. Then, using the photographic enlarger, expose the trash-covered paper to light.

After removing dust and dirt, the paper is immersed in a bath of chemical developer.

In less than two minutes, an image slowly emerges from a universe teeming with galaxies.

I love it when the darkroom fills with the sound of their amazement as they realize the dust beneath their feet transforms into a scene of scientific wonder.

I remembered this analog exercise when NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope shared the first deep-field images. The public expression of wonder is not unlike that of my students in the darkroom.

But unlike our improvised starscapes, Deep Field images capture a veritable cluster of galaxies, “the deepest, sharpest infrared view of the universe yet.”

This imaging precision will help scientists solve the mysteries of our solar system and our place in it.

But they will also inspire ongoing experiments by artists who engage with the subject of space, the universe, and our fragile place in it.

Create space art

Images of the cosmos provide considerable visual pleasure. I listen to scientists passionately describe what information is stored in their saturated colors and amorphous forms, what brightness and shadows are, and what hides in deep blacks that are mottled and speckled.

The mysteries of the universe are the stuff of science and imagination.

Throughout history, artists have imagined and created vicarious universes: lyrical and speculative constructs, alternate worlds that supersede what we imagine, hope and fear “out there”.

Image taken by the James Webb Space Telescope of Stephan’s quintet. NASA/STScI, CC BY-SA

There are the photo-realistic drawings and paintings of Vija Celmins. The night sky meticulously drawn or painted by hand with extraordinary detail and precision.

There are David Stephenson’s time-lapse photographs that read like lyrical celestial drawings reminding us that we are on a moving planet. Yosuke Takeda’s ambiguous star bursts with color and light. Thomas Ruff’s sultry photos of stars made through close cropping of detail from existing scientific images he purchased after failing to capture the cosmos with his own camera.

There’s also the incredible work of Blue Mountains-based duo Haines & Hinterding, where polka dots become stars, black pigment is the night sky, colored ink bleeding is gas formation. They make the rocks hum and harness the sun’s rays so we can hear and feel its energy.

These works of art highlight the creative will to use science for artistic purposes. The separation between science and art is artificial.

Images from our imaginations

The Webb Telescope shows science’s ability to bring us aesthetically imaginative, expressive and technically accomplished images but – strangely – they make me feel nothing.

Science tells me these shapes are galaxies and stars billions of years old, but it doesn’t sink in. Instead, I see a fabulously constructed landscape like James Nasmyth’s famous 1874 moon images.

In my imagination, I imagine Webb images as made of string lights, colored gels, mirrors, black fabric, filters, and Photoshop.

A planetary nebula, seen by the Webb telescope. NASA/STScI, CC BY-SA

The doubles of art invade my psyche. When I look at the deep field and the planetary nebula, I remember that even these “objective” machine-made images are constructed. Rays of light, holes and gases are artistic experiments in photographic abstraction, examining what lies beyond vision.

Imaging technology is always transforming what is “out there”, and how we see it is determined by what is “here”: our own subjectivity; what we bring about ourselves and our life when reading the image.

The telescope is a photographer crawling through the cosmos, making more of the unseen seen. Give artists more references for appropriation, imagination, but also criticism.

While scientists see structure and detail, artists see aesthetic and performative possibilities for asking pressing questions that concern the politics of space and place.

art in space

Webb’s images offer a fresh opportunity to reflect on the work of American artist Trevor Paglen, who sent the world’s first work of art into space.

Paglen’s work examines the political geography that is space and how science-aided governments use space for mass surveillance and data collection.

The deepest, sharpest infrared image of the early universe ever taken. NASA/STScI, CC BY-SA

He created a 30-meter diamond-shaped balloon called the Orbital Reflector that was supposed to open up into a huge reflective balloon and be seen from Earth as a shining star. It was blasted into space on a satellite, but engineers were unable to complete the deployment of the sculpture due to the unexpected government shutdown.

Paglen’s work has been criticized by scientists.

Unlike astronomers, he was not trying to unravel the mystery of the universe or our place in it. He asked: is space a place for art? Who owns the space and for whom is the space intended?

Space is easily accessible to governmental, military, commercial and scientific interests. For now, Earth remains the place of art.


About the Author: Cherine Fahd is Associate Professor of Visual Communication at the School of Design at the University of Technology Sydney. The opinions expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author. This article was originally published on The conversation and is republished under a Creative Commons license.

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