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The Story Telling Universe. — 4 Comments

  1. My own experience as an astrophotographer is, well, less experienced than I would like. But my sense is the images taken by experienced astrophotographers rarely tell stories. More often, they are simply portraits — say, a high magnification photo of Saturn, or lunar craters, or the Orion Nebula. And really good ones stand on their own just fine. I have seen many what I consider great photos of the Milky Way that I marvel at but which tell no story at all — other than evoking the viewer’s own sense of wonder of our galaxy itself, and knowing what the photographer had to go through to get that image (which, by itself, is often impressive).

    Having said that, yes, when possible, if the subject you are photographing can be framed with other elements that do help tell a story, by all means, go for it. Unfortunately, that usually means getting out of your comfort zone and going somewhere else. Twenty years ago, for example, I forced myself out of bed way too early, and I drove all the way into downtown Washington, D.C., at 4 a.m. just to take a photo of a -6 magnitude Iridium flare (a brief glint of sunlight off an Iridium satellite) that I discovered could be framed to appear right above the National Shrine (standing in the right spot). I dropped a print of that photo in all my Christmas cards that year, with the Iridium flare acting as a stand-in for the Star of Bethlehem and the Shrine as the stable:

    https://pbs.twimg.com/media/DwP7op6XcAAXmyv?format=jpg&name=large

    One I did NOT take of the Milky Way, but very much wish I will get an opportunity to take someday (or at least something like it) is this one I saw recently on Twitter. It has everything you describe:

    https://twitter.com/SETIInstitute/status/1190633417181978624

    I’ve been using it as my Mac’s desktop background, aside from being such a wonderful photo, as inspiration to remind myself I need to get out to dark and picturesque places a lot more often than I do.

    – Jim Cook

    • Jim, Thank you for a very engaging response! And thank you for the links to your wonderful pictures! I’m always inspired by the work of others. In that spirit, thank you for inspiring me!

      Your initial paragraph cuts right to the heart of the struggle I faced a few months back when I decided to try and do good star photography. What is a story contained in an image? When you say “Saturn, or lunar craters, or the Orion Nebula” are simply portraits, I would agree with you. At the same time, there are certain images, as your rightly point out, that do pop more than others, that do tell a story. For example, the story the Orion Nebula tells is one of star death and new life coming from that death in the form of “infant” stars. Lunar craters tell many stories, whether it be asteroid bombardments, the Apollo Missions or the realization made by Galileo that the Moon is not a smooth, pristine “heavenly body” as many presumed it was, but a jagged object with features similar to our common home. When I think of Saturn, I think of the story of human curiosity, wanting to know what Saturn actually is, not simply being satisfied with a ground based observation. Rather, we want to travel to these places, learn their “story” so we can understand our story better.

      In short, it isn’t that these images don’t tell a story, but instead they tell a story with a unique interpretive frame. I would love to hear your response, especially if I misunderstood the point you were making.

      • If the point was the difference between an ordinary astrophotograph and a good one is the extent to which it tells a story, I took from your comments that “story” was something the photographer should try to include in a photograph or make an effort to try to capture somehow, not that it was something inherent in the subject itself. If a portrait-like photo of the Orion Nebula captures the “story” of the birth and death of stars, it’s because the viewer is already aware of what is occurring there, not necessarily something the photographer has specifically tried to capture (unless they are very skilled somehow). Does that make sense? Sure, a portrait-type astrophoto may have a story to tell, but conveying that either comes from the viewer’s own knowledge of the subject, or from a caption written by the photographer (or an article’s author … or a blog entry). That’s what I was trying to express. In contrast, “story” expressed as an effort on the part of the photographer comes from technique or sense of art — how the photo is framed, the elements included (background, foreground), focus, lighting, etc. A portrait photo of the Milky Way shows the dust lanes and star clouds. One with a story expressed by the photographer, however, also has a weather vane tower in the foreground, or the Milky Way reflected in a body of water in a forest clearing, to give it Earthly context.

        Speaking of high school football games… I went through a “panorama phase” when I found a free panorama stitching program on a software CD fifteen or so years ago. I made lots of them. As a gift for my dad, I wanted to get the “story” of a high school football game for him that I could have printed and framed, after he put three sons on the field years ago, and yet he still went to the games. But while the stitched photo and print came out really nice, I actually caught far more than I realized.

        http://www.jacook.name/pics/MAvsGC21287x500.jpg

        My brother-in-law, looking at the framed print hanging on my dad’s den, pointed out I had caught “generations” of high school football. In the foreground are parents of players and alumni (including some former players themselves, too), representing the past. (I didn’t know my dad was there — his red hat is barely visible just left of center, so he’s in the photo himself.) Then there are the current players on the field and sidelines, and fans in the stands, representing the present. And then way over on the right, by the school, were some grade school kids playing catch with a football, representing the generations to come. I’d captured a Norman Rockwell painting!

        Speaking of inspiration … I took this back in 2008, when I was taking care of my parish web page. I couldn’t resist using a conjunction of Jupiter, Venus and the Moon as a Star of Bethlehem stand-in appearing above our church, and used it for Epiphany Sunday:

        http://www.jacook.name/pics/conjunction120108.jpg

        As you may be aware, Jupiter and Venus are in conjunction again right now (the Moon joins them Nov. 28). They’re lower than they were in 2008, so if you want to take something similar for your church, you might have to step back further than I did. Just a thought.

        – Jim

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