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Photography in the History of Observation: Handwork and Labor of Mechanical Reproduction

Project by Prof. Dr. Omar W. Nasim

This project combines photographic history and history of science and technology to interrogate the role and importance of photographic materials and practices in shaping and re-configuring astronomy in the era of glass plate photography. Aside from paper catalogues of stars, the routine work with and on these plates left a trail of marks, notes, and labels made or fixed directly on the plates. These traces, marks and labels, together with industrial information about plate manufacture, photographic emulsions and pre-exposure treatments are important indicators of the performance of astronomical knowledge-making through glass plate photography. They also represent traces of large multinational markets in photographic raw and finished materials and its insertion into scientific practice. The hybridity of photography is accentuated in order to challenge the standard accounts of its media-specificity. This means photography is combined with drawing, plaster-making, and other more traditional media in the routine handwork with photography at the observatory, for instance. Photography is intermedial. This new research moves beyond contemporary scholarship by revealing a view of how photography was used by scientists in their day-to-day practices, and how standards were established for manufacture and use of glass plate photography in astronomy and more widely; and in both cases the materiality of photography will be central. We aim to show that the “information” contained on these glass objects extends beyond the image.


See also Astronomy's Glass Archive.


“Photography and Hybrid Images in the History of Astronomical Practice,” in Hybrid Photography: Intermedial Practice in Science and Humanities, eds. Stefanie Klamm, Sara Hillnhüter and Friedrich Tietjen, (Bloomsbury Press, 2020, in press).

“Handling the Heavens: Things and the Photo-Objects of Astronomy,” in Photo-Objects: On the Materiality of Photographs and Photo-archives in the Humanities and Sciences, ed. Costanza Caraffa, et. al. (Berlin: EOA, 2019, in press).

"The Labour of Handwork in Astronomy: Between Drawing and Photography in Anton Pannekoek," in Anton Pannekoek: Ways of Viewing Science and Society, eds. Chaokang Tai, Bart van der Steen, and Jeroen van Dongen (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2019) pp. 251-286.

“James Nasmyth on the Moon; Or on Becoming a Lunar Being Without the Lunacy,” in Selene’s Two Faces: From 17th Century Drawings to Spacecraft Imaging, ed. Carmen Pérez González. (Brill, 2018) pp. 147-187.

“Astrophotograpfie und John Herschels ‚Skelette“ in Zeigen und/oder Beweisen?: Die Fotografie als Kulturtechnik und Medium des Wissens, ed. Herta Wolf (Berlin: Akademie Verlag’s Series: Studies in Theory and History of Photography, 2016) pp. 157-78.

“The ‘Landmark’ and ‘Groundwork’ of Stars: John Herschel, Photography and the Drawing of Nebulae,” in Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science, 2011, 42: 67-84.

  1. Fakultät für Philosophie, Kunst-, Geschichts- und Gesellschaftswissenschaften
  2. Institut für Philosophie