(l, b)≃(209°, -57°) Galactic Coordinates
I visited Kiev in 2013 to produce closing photographs for an ongoing pan-European project, ‘Nylon Chrysalis’. As work for the project is photographed at night, I spent the days scouting locations and visiting the sights. Along a steep street lined with tourist shops, beside one of the city’s landmark cathedrals, I came upon a number of vendors selling belongings laid out on blankets. A Laika (the sputnik dog) clock caught my eye. Surrounding the clock at this vendor’s set up were a few other Soviet era items, books, pins, etc. To the side was a partially opened cardboard box containing a few photographs and postcards. The photographs were of individuals and groups in uniform, and a couple contained 1970s-ish scientific machines. Upon a closer look of a postcard I spotted the most famous cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, in a posed group. Someone looking very much like Gagarin appeared again, this time unposed in a couple of the photographs, (including in a swimsuit). Hidden beneath the photographs was a dusty stack of 4x5” large format negatives tightly held together in a bundle with a string, which appeared to have been tied for decades. Bundled together I couldn’t make out what the negatives contained, and the woman selling the items frowned at my attempt to untie it. They would remain unseen.
The vendor’s English was quite limited, and my Ukrainian language skills end with “yes”, “no”, “thank you”, and “I would like cabbage rolls”. (Skills learned from my grandmother who emigrated from Ukraine). Through our strained ability to communicate, the seller explained that the box was found at her uncle’s house who had recently passed away. He had worked with the Space Agency in Russia for his career. She insisted that the contents of the box stay together, and wouldn’t sell the photographs separately. After a negotiation, I walked away with the box. The Laika clock stayed behind.
At the time, I was excited with the prospect of having discovered snapshots of the first man in space, and didn’t think about the negatives. Upon finally untying the bundle of negatives later, a mystery unfolded. The negatives all contained images of abstracted forms. Abstract, but reminiscent of topographies and nebula found in astronomical atlas’ from the early days of the space race. The negatives were in mixed condition. Some were in good condition, others quite terrible. In a couple, the cellulose substrate had deteriorated, causing buckling and sticking together. A few of the negatives were torn, and many required extensive cleaning. A hard, translucent substance is smeared on several, and appears to be permanent. What exactly is the subject of these images? Are they of the Earth? Venus? The sun? Are they macroscopic, or are they microscopic? Are they of anything? Who was this uncle, and what was his role at the space agency? Is he one of the members of the (colour) group photograph?
The title, “(l, b)≃(209°, -57°) Galactic Coordinates”, is the astronomical location of a cold spot, or void. A patch of space in the universe that is empty. Up until the deployment of the Hubble Telescope, there were several more empty patches in the sky. Clever use of this orbiting camera, taking extended “deep field” exposures, revealed that many of these empty spots are not empty at all but teeming with galaxies. A couple of years ago, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe returned photographs of a comet that forever changed our understanding of the universe. Rather than a round, icy snowball, Rosetta’s images presented us with miniature traveling worlds, with a landscape that is slowly being shed as it travels through the solar system. As technology advances in bothimaging, and our ability to place cameras in more remote places, we will continue to be treated with new, fantastical views of the cosmos that go beyond our imagination.
The Vivian Mayer discovery of never seen before perspectives of mid-century Chicago and New York, along with the finding of 22 frozen glass plates of the Shackleton expedition of the Antarctic 100 years ago, are reminders that our visual history of the 20th century is not nearly complete, but an ongoing process. The finding of new photographic views of our past both contributes to our knowledge, and provides new narratives of the world. As photographic archives continue to be unearthed from drawers and boxes, our knowledge and stories of the world will grow. What is discovered in these archaeological finds will expand our understanding of the past, as much as advanced imaging of the cosmos will of the future.
Prints for the series are made directly from the found negatives in a darkroom using light sensitive silver gelatin paper. The paper receives an accumulation of light from an exposure projected from the negative in an enlarger, similar to how a sensor in an orbiting telescope would receive exposure from a distant galaxy. During printing, interventions of double exposure and photograms are made, introducing suggestive elements of astronomical and topographic imagery. This is a layered process requiring careful arrangement on the photographic paper. Each result is unique. The final silver gelatin print produced though the photo-chemical process, is a material object produced in the same fashion as the negatives and prints of the early days of space exploration.