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“A step out of and beyond nature”: Picturing the Moon

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The following is a guest post by Micah Messenheimer, Curator of Photography, Prints & Photographs Division.

This week’s anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing provides a perfect opportunity to explore our holdings of lunar photography in the Prints & Photographs Division. From the medium’s beginnings, the moon fascinated photographers as both a subject of scientific inquiry and as poetic muse.

Early efforts to photograph the moon were often met with failure due to the low sensitivity of available materials. Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre attempted photographs in his eponymous process around 1838 that were described as “fuzzy and low in details,” by his advocate, François Arago. Successful photographs of the moon using the daguerreotype process would not be made until over a dozen years later, when the celebrated Boston portrait photographer John Adams Whipple sought the assistance of Harvard astronomer William Cranch Bond and his son, George Phillips Bond. Using the college observatory’s Great Refractor telescope, they captured the sphere in its waxing gibbous phase on March 14, 1851.

Moon shown about half in shadow
Phase of the moon taken March 1851. Photo by John Adams Whipple, 1851 March, printed 1853.

Their work resulted in a significant improvement in image quality, but the movements of the earth and the moon over the thirteen second exposure time resulted in a photograph that was considered perhaps more important aesthetically, than scientifically. Whipple wrote of the difficulties of making a “well defined, beautiful daguerreotype of the Moon,” in the July, 1853 issue of The Photographic Art-Journal, observing that, “nothing could be more interesting than its appearance through that magnificent instrument, but to transfer it to the silver plate, to make something tangible of it was quite a different thing.” He recounts both the imprecise clockwork gearing of the telescope and the region’s hazy atmospheric conditions as hampering clarity.

Despite such adversity, Whipple’s daguerreotypes won a medal for excellence at the 1851 Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London, which lauded their role in starting “a new era in astronomical representation.” The views were extremely popular and drew crowds as they toured across Europe, despite scientific quibbles that the photographs were not as accurate as drawn and engraved renderings observed with the human eye.

Whipple was a noted experimenter of photo processes. While his photograph of the moon was made as a daguerreotype, the photograph in the Library of Congress collection, shown above, is a salted paper print made using a glass negative process of Whipple’s own invention, termed the crystalotype. Introduced in 1850, it allowed for the copying of daguerreotypes for publication, as with this print that appeared as a frontispiece in the aforementioned Photographic Art-Journal. The first published photograph of the moon, the print would similarly be awarded a medal at the New York Crystal Palace exposition in 1853.

After seeing Whipple’s daguerreotype of the moon at the 1851 Great Exhibition, British amateur scientist and astronomer Warren de la Rue—known for his 1829 invention of the incandescent light bulb—dedicated the next several years toward an improved result.

Two orbs on black background
The moon. Photographed from the original negatives of Warren De la Rue, Esq., F.R.S. by Robert Howlett, ca. 1858.

Following initial attempts in 1853, he made his first successful images the next year using a telescope of his own design—considered to be the first made for purely photographic use. De la Rue was aided in his work by the introduction of the wet collodion process, which reduced exposure time from the daguerreotype and salted paper processes that preceded it, greatly increasing clarity. De la Rue improved upon his telescope with a move to a new observatory in 1857, where he would make the stereo view shown above and below (with two different lighting sources). True astronomical stereographs were not yet feasible through a telescopic camera. Instead, De la Rue precisely determined the rotation of the moon needed to simulate a stereo effect from two individual photographs made over an interval of twenty-four hours.

After presentation to the Royal Astronomical Society in the fall of 1858, praise from the scientific community was effusive. Writing in the Photographic News in November, 1858, Sir John Herschel stated that the stereograph, “must be looked upon as the crowning triumph, being in effect a step out of and beyond nature…so that this stereoscope exhibits the moon to us as it would be truly seen by a giant whose eyes were at that distance asunder.” The image quality of the views was considered unsurpassed until the twentieth century, clearly showing individual craters and providing fodder for scientific debate over their volcanic or meteoric origin.

The glass positive stereo view is a stunning object: two luminous orbs are suspended in glass bound with red cloth with gold lettering listing the creator, De la Rue, printer, Robert Howlett, and publisher, Smith, Beck, & Beck.

Two orbs on red background with printed imprint surrounding the images.
The moon. Photographed from the original negatives of Warren De la Rue, Esq., F.R.S. by Robert Howlett, ca. 1858.

Unlike gentleman-scientists like De la Rue, Howlett appears to have made a living solely from his photography. Howlett was recognized for his photographic reproductions of artworks for the royal family, portraiture of Crimean War soldiers, and documentation of the construction of the Leviathan, the largest steamship of the time. In December, 1858, just months after presenting de la Rue’s and his stereographs to the Royal Astronomical Society, Howlett died at the unfortunately early age of twenty-eight with reported causes of death ranging from typhus, and “excess of zeal,” to the chemical side-effects of collodion photography.

De la Rue and Howlett’s stereograph was also commercially important, being one of the first photographs to be successfully sold in multiple by the firm Smith, Beck, & Beck, a maker of scientific optics that began publishing stereographs after introducing several popular viewers in the 1850s. These photographs of the moon were likely the firm’s most successful series, with paper editions following the glass version.

The Prints & Photographs Division additionally holds a number of 19th century photographically-illustrated publications documenting the moon. Foremost among these is James Nasmyth and James Carpenter’s 1874 book, The Moon: Considered as a Planet, a World, and a Satellite. Nasmyth, the photographer, was a successful engineer and inventor of the steam hammer who retired in 1856 to his home, Hammerfield, to pursue his hobby of astronomy.

Normal lunar crater. Woodburytype by James Nasmyth, 1874.

In contrast to Whipple and De la Rue, he didn’t directly document the moon with his camera. He instead constructed meticulous plaster models based on his own telescopic drawings to depict what otherwise could not be seen with the camera. Nasmyth drew on photography for its evidentiary power: photographed in high relief with deep shadows and bright sunlight emphasizing craters and ridges, his pictures certainly appear out-of-this-world.

Nasmyth's patent steam hammer technical drawing, showing parts
Nasmyth’s patent steam hammer, copied by permission of the inventor from the machine in the great exhibition. Wood engraving from Cyclopædia of useful arts, mechanical and chemical, manufactures, mining, and engineering, 1854.

In the late 20th and early 21st century daguerreotypy saw a resurgence among photographers.

Robert Shlaer was among the artists leading this renaissance. His 2002 view of a full moon over Santa Fe, New Mexico offers a poetic response to a subject that was once considered a prize of nineteenth-century daguerreotypists.

Full moon on dark background
The moon (full), Santa Fe, New Mexico. Photo by Robert Shlaer, 2002 Dec. 19-20.

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Comments (2)

  1. Most people in the world often view the Moon only through their own eyes, at a distance, and often as a “thing” of beauty. On so many evenings and throughout the long nights it is a guiding beacon for the planet. Let’s not focus just on how crisp, clear and resolute the images are, but on its overall ethereal beauty as well.

  2. Enjoyed this very much. Thank You.

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