Enthralling and Majestic Space Photography

A space shuttle photograph showing sediment discharged where the Amazon River meets the Atlantic Ocean, August 1992.

Courtesy NASA, Johnson Space Center

As long as people have been making photographs, they’ve been trying to capture the night sky and the celestial bodies that occupy it. A new exhibition at the George Eastman House, “The History of Space Photography,” traces the effort to photograph both planets and views of Earth from space over time. “Our mission is to tell the whole story of the history of photography,” said Jamie M. Allen, assistant curator of photographs at George Eastman House. “Space photography is not only beautiful but also a great way to learn about photography and how it’s used in science.”

The exhibition highlights a variety of astronomical photographs while tracing the developments in photography since the early 19th century, which have served to make space more knowable to both scientists and the general public. “Photography made things that were not visible to the human eyes visible,” Allen said. “If you look at microphotography, we can see things that are very minute. In the case of space photography, we can see things that are very distant or not in the wavelength our eyes can see. Photography lets researchers and scientists access information and understand information and share it with other people.”

With giant Saturn hanging in the blackness and sheltering Cassini from the Sun’s blinding glare, the spacecraft viewed the planet’s rings as never before, revealing previously unknown faint rings and even glimpsing its home world. This marvelous panoramic view was created by combining a total of 165 images taken by the Cassini wide-angle camera over nearly three hours on Sept. 15, 2006.

Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute and Susanne Pieth/German Aerospace Center

Representative-color view of the universe from the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS).

Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

Infrared image of the galaxy Messier 101 from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, 2009.
Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/K. Gordon (STScI)
Representative-color view from the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radio meter (ASTER) on NASA’s Terra satellite of the tip of the Mississippi River Delta, May 24, 2010.

Courtesy NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team

Many of the photographs in the exhibit come from observatories and laboratories around the world. Others come from NASA and Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Hubble Space Telescope. They include some of the most recognizable and technologically significant images in space photography, including the first view of Earth’s south polar ice cap and the first images of some of Saturn’s fainter rings.

The images also chart advances in photographic technology that scientists developed to capture different types of light and visual information. “I think that scientists had to be inventive with what was available and push that technology further to what they knew was there—whether that be X-rays or ultraviolet or infrared. We owe a lot to science for pushing the technology of photography further,” Allen said.

The exhibition is on view through Jan. 12, along with “Astro-Visions,” which presents other representations of outer space across different media.

Hemisphere of Mars from the Viking spacecraft.

Courtesy NASA/JPL/USGS and Susanne Pieth/German Aerospace Center

Infrared image from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope showing the Helix nebula, 2007.
Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona
View of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.

Courtesy NASA, Goddard Space Flight Center

First view of Earth’s south polar ice cap, taken from Apollo 17, December 1972.
Courtesy NASA/Johnson Space Center and Mike Gentry
Remaining background light from a period of time when the universe was less than one billion years old, captured in data from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope.

Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSFC