First Light

First Light - Photography & Astronomy
Saskia Asser
Architectura & Natura Press, January 2010

Paperback | 5-1/2 x 7-1/2 inches | 542 pages | 150 illustrations | Dutch/English | ISBN: 978-9076863931 | $39.50

Publisher Description:
Since the late 19th century, astronomers have been exploring the limits of human perception by way of photography. Those limits were surpassed once and for all with the arrival of space travel and the satellite. In photographs, the seemingly infinite size of the universe is reduced to human proportions, yet it remains an elusive idea. Partly for that reason astronomy has had a long history of popularizing research. Exhibition catalogue comprising of first/time combinations of unique historical astronomy photographers from Dutch collections, and present-day images made by famous telescopes and space probes such as ESO, Hubble and Cassini.
dDAB Commentary:
Recently reviewing two books on life beyond Earth — Moon: Architectural Guide and Space Settlements — led me to flip through First Light: Photography & Astronoy, a book I found irresistible when I spotted it at the bookstore of Architectura & Natura in Amsterdam last year. The book is the catalog to a 2010 exhibition of the same name at Huis Marseille, a photography museum also in Amsterdam. Although the book is long, the dual-language nature of the book means most of the pages are text rather than images. The latter are what drew to the book, though flipping through the book it's concept and design by MichaĆ«l Snitker stood out for the way image and text are integrated.

The first third of the book is taken up by essays, while the bulk of the book presents the photographs that look heavenward toward the planets in our solar system and the stars and galaxies beyond. The photos are ordered from near to far, from the moon, which can be seen from earth, to planets captured by Voyager 2, to views of the Milky Way and galaxies beyond. In turn, the book moves forward in time, displaying the effects of advances in technology that have made views of the universe so rich and wondrous, while also juxtaposing old and recent photos at times. The cover, for example, is a 1960 photograph of Orion's Belt and a barely visible Horseshoe Nebula; inside the book that photo is followed by a composite view of the same nebula with three images taken in 2000 by a much stronger telescope and filters that allow for a colorful view of what looks black to the naked eye. It's not difficult here for the reader to grasp how technology has changed our view of the universe.

The spreads below should reveal this movement from near to far and low resolution to high resolution, but also the role of the typography in Snitker's design. The text opposite the photographs starts with a large text size and gradually reduces in size as the subject matter shifts from the Moon and Earth, to the planets, and to the Milky Way and beyond. This shift parallels the size of the objects being photographed relative to Earth (the moon is much larger when seen through a telescope on Earth, enabling us to see details of craters, than it is when looking at Orion's Belt), while also expressing the extra information capable with today's technology (there is more written information possible on the pages in the back of the book than toward the front). This combination of text and words, combined with other design features, makes for a beautiful exhibition catalog that can also be enjoyed by people, like me, who did not see the exhibition in person.

Author Bio:
Saskia Asser is a photography curator, author and researcher based in Amsterdam. She delivers advice, research, texts and exhibitions about photography and the history of photography.
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