Why Are Pictures of Space So Powerful?

Artist Trevor Paglen, who loves the sky and doesn't trust the government, breaks down our fascination with the new NASA photos.
Katie Way
Brooklyn, US
Cathryn Virginia
illustrated by Cathryn Virginia
People looking to the skies
Photos from NASA and Grant Faint via Getty Images

Anyone who has ever gazed slack-jawed at a clear night sky full of stars knows the rush of feeling that comes with being awed by outer space: a mix of childlike wonder and existential terror, delight and horror at the scale of our own little lives measured against the endless expanse of the entire fucking universe.

The photographs that NASA released on Tuesday from the world’s most powerful telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope, evoke the same feeling. The five images—some of light that is literal billions of years old, others of structures like the Carina nebula and the galaxies in Stephan’s Quintet, previously captured by the Hubble telescope in much less detail—are dazzling in terms of the depth of their window into the great beyond. They are also very pretty to look at. 


These images, like space itself, provoke questions on a subjective level even as they provide answers on a scientific one. What makes the whorls and flashes of the James Webb Space Telescope’s first public dispatch so moving? Why do images of space resonate with us at all? Instead of turning these questions over until worn smooth in the rock tumbler of my mind, I talked to Trevor Paglen, an artist and geographer who uses the medium of photography to consider the sky, space, and human passage through both. Paglen has used telescopes while photographing sites and technologies classified by the U.S. government (think drones and Area 51) in his work on the surveillance state. He’s also a MacArthur genius who has literally launched his work into space on multiple occasions; a temporary satellite reflective enough to be visible from Earth, and a disk etched with 100 images, including cityscapes, people dancing, and Trotsky’s brain, designed to orbit our planet permanently and explain the essence of humanity to whoever visits it after we’re gone. We spoke about why the color of star stuffs matters, NASA’s place in the U.S. popular imagination, and the human impulse to look to the sky for answers.

VICE: What was your gut reaction to seeing these images?

I was excitedly awaiting these images for a very long time. I watched the release on Monday night of the initial one, and I was like, This is amazing. I was surprised that the deep field image was the first one that they released, because in a way, it's a very technical image. It's also a really beautiful image, but it’s very much all about the details. I was surprised that they didn't release something like a big pillar that was more obviously comparable to the popular Hubble images. That deep field image was super interesting, both from a technical perspective, but then also kind of a philosophical perspective, but then also a philosophy of images perspective. 


Can you, uh, elaborate—

Yeah, here's what I mean by that. Images don’t exist in a vacuum, right? They’re always packaged for us and we’re always prompted in terms of how we should look at them. Some of those prompts are conscious, and some of those prompts are unconscious. Some are explicit, and some are implicit. For example, I show you that image of the deep field and I say, “This is a picture of the beginning of time and the farthest reaches of the Universe.” That's literally the context that it's presented with, that it's present within. So you're approaching that image, looking for something that is universal, looking for something that is timeless, and that you're looking for a kind of transcendental truth in that image. That is a very powerful thing to claim about an image. If you package an image in that way, you're asking people to approach the image with a huge amount of curiosity and reverence. 

It's not so dissimilar from, say, if you go see the Mona Lisa. In your head you’re going, Oh, this is this incredibly expensive—supposedly—incredibly important art historical object. You approach that image with a huge amount of reverence. [NASA] is doing the same thing with the James Webb Space Telescope photos. The point is, that has an effect on you—you experience that emotionally as well as intellectually. And that's a very powerful emotion, an emotion that religions play on all the time. 


If I had taken the same exact image and showed it to you, and I'm like, “Oh, here's some interesting stuff I saw in a microscopic slide of pond scum,” it would look, probably, really similar. But you'd be like, “OK, that's cool. Nice microscope,” or whatever. You wouldn’t be like, “Oh, my God, this is the origin of all reality!” I think that's where part of this feeling comes from. 

Can you tell me a little bit about what makes these images so special on a technical level? How did this new telescope create something so much more in-focus and spectacular than what we can capture with, say, a regular camera? 

When we look at those Hubble images, and when we look at the JWST—JWST even more than Hubble—that telescope doesn't really look at visible light. It can see some light, a little bit in the orange and red. But most of the light it is collecting is not visible to your eyes. It's infrared light. It's photographing sulfur clouds and oxygen and hydrogen, elements that are reflecting light and emitting light at wavelengths that we can't see. 

If you're building a telescope, and you want to see the stuff that the universe is made out of, most of that stuff is not visible in visual wavelengths. Neither are the other things happening in the universe—all of the galaxies, and all the structures in the universe are flying apart from each other, and as they fly apart from each other, it stretches out the photons, and so it shifts everything to the red, too. Even a star that, if you were next to it, would be visible, if that star’s flying away from you super, super fast, the light at that star shifts into the red to the point where you can’t see it. That's all a background as to why they built the telescope to collect with light that we can't see.


That’s great context. You also mentioned these images operate on an aesthetic level to evoke the strong reaction we’re seeing—and one that I think many people felt on a personal level. What about these images creates that response?

The aesthetic part of it is also historical, and weirdly, specifically American. When you collect all this light that we can’t see through these photographs of different wavelengths, you need to translate those wavelengths into wavelengths that are perceptible to us. When you do that translation, it’s basically arbitrary: “Here's these infrared wavelengths, let's translate that into this visible color.” There's actually a dude at NASA whose job it is to do this—his name is Joe DePasquale. For me, it's kind of interesting that NASA literally employs someone to do this art. And the way that Hubble does it, they have something called the Hubble palette—the conventions that they use to do that conversion. For Hubble, the palette says sulfur emissions are red, hydrogen is green, and oxygen is blue. 

The palette that they're using is very much a palette that comes from Western landscape painters and Hudson School painters. It’s a palette that is very much associated with artists like Albert Bierstadt—look up Bierstadt paintings and you’ll see exactly what I mean. A professor at Stanford, Elizabeth Kessler, wrote a whole book about this Hubble palette and its ties to Western landscape painting, Picturing the Cosmos: Hubble Space Telescope Images and the Astronomical Sublime. This brings us to a second point about the philosophy of images—we always bring a context to the images that we're looking at. The second part of that context here is the fact that we, subconsciously, are associating these forms and these colors with a particular tradition of imagining the West that comes from a really American 19th century [perspective]. 


So, at least in the American context, this is really powerful subconscious stuff. It's very much pulling on some particular strings in the collective unconscious of the frontier and colonialism, that whole myth of the West in the United States in particular. That's not to say that they're not incredible images. It's just, analyzing them, I'm thinking about: What are the buttons that these images are pushing?

On that note, I'm wondering what you think of NASA and of the fact that we're getting these transcendently beautiful images from the government.

That's a whole ’nother layer of stuff. NASA has done such an amazing job of PR. It's incredible. They're super conscious about it, intensely self aware about what their public image is. Somehow, they've managed to fashion themselves into being what in many people's minds is the only part of the government that seems functional and reasonable. I think that in the popular imagination of the United States, NASA is held in an incredibly high regard. I've even been in a car with NASA guys—we got pulled over and got a ticket, and someone I was with was like, “Tell the cop that you’re from NASA!” and the NASA guys were like, “What? OK…” and told him, and the cop was like “Oh, you work for NASA? OK, you’re good, just a warning.”


Oh my God! 

Right? They have this kind of singular place among government institutions in a sense that they've very carefully crafted. I think that particularly at a moment like this, it's really tragic, but there is probably an aspect of the release of these images that is speaking to the desire of so many people in the U.S. to have a functional government.

I feel like it would be a bit too simplistic to call it propaganda, but it’s hard not to think about our current state of affairs as the backdrop here.

Absolutely, absolutely. And I mean this in the opposite of a conspiratorial way: I don’t think these images are distracting. It’s more that there's some extra juice that those images have, because they are the product of a government program that seems to benefit everybody in this kind of uncontroversial way. I think there's like a desire among so many people to have that be a paradigm of government in general, especially at a moment where that is so clearly not the case—with what the Supreme Court is doing, and the general dysfunction and really the maliciousness that we see on the part of the state at the moment.

OK, let’s zoom out a bit. You’ve photographed the sky many times. Why do you think we are so moved by images of the sky—sunsets, clouds, stars, the moon—to the point that we’re compelled to produce them ourselves? Where do you think that comes from?

I would put astronomy photos in a different category than my cloud photos—that's just me, personally—but when we're looking at space, images of space are like stars and the cosmos. People have always looked to the cosmos to try to answer the big questions: What is the past? What is the future? Who are the humans? Where did we come from? That goes back to Babylonian astronomy and astrology, thousands and thousands of years back, trying to divine and explain our place in the universe by trying to decode patterns in the sky—in the stars, specifically. You could say the same exact thing about Hubble or James Webb, right. When we're looking at these pictures, we're trying to understand, where did the universe come from? What's our place in it? What is the structure of reality, you know, and what's going to happen? Weirdly, the exact same questions.

What would you use the James Webb Space Telescope to take pictures of if they gave you the wheel?

Oh, that's a good question. I'm not an astronomer in that way. That telescope was designed to make images of things and to try to answer questions that I'm not even in the position to be able to articulate. I’m just more interested in how these infrastructures work than the cosmos itself.  I'm much more interested in things like photographing telescopes themselves. For very, very long amounts of time, I've been trying to photograph things in the sky that aren't there in one way or another, either because they're classified or because people don't know what they are. I'm much more interested in the ways in which we have transformed the night sky—adding satellites to it or building infrastructures in space. What does it say about our moment in time that not only do we look to the sky for our origins and answers, but also that we're actively transforming it?

Katie Way is a senior staff writer at VICE. Follow her on Twitter.