The Eagle Nebula, located more than one hundred million times farther away from the Earth than the Sun, is home to one of the best-known celestial bodies discovered in recent years: three gigantic clouds of gas and dust captured by the Hubble Space Telescope in a photographic collage dubbed “Pillars of Creation.” The stately column in the middle, the oversized column on the left that seems to be collapsing under its own weight, and the wispy afterthought of a column on the right, all surrounded by an eerie green mist punctuated by bright, twinkling stars—these comprise the subject of the photograph. What might seem like a pristine, albeit alien, landscape on first glance is quickly restored to more human imperfections by the conspicuous absence of an upper-right corner in the image. Indeed, the photograph only captures the region immediately surrounding the three pillars, and is cut off directly above each. Additionally, since the photograph was taken by four separate cameras, there remain “artifacts” of the complicated process used to assemble the final image. These flaws are not only unexpected, but they also dissuade the viewer, at least initially, from calling the photograph beautiful.
From a traditional aesthetic standpoint, “Pillars of Creation” is anything but beautiful: it is, after all, just a photograph of astronomically large piles of dust. In “Kalliphobia in Contemporary Art,” Arthur C. Danto discusses modern art that, similar to “Pillars of Creation,” lies outside of the realm of the beautiful and could even be described as ugly. According to Danto, however, lack of beauty does not preclude appreciation, nor does it necessarily imply ugliness. While the word “kalliphobia” means “fear of beauty,” it does not explicitly require a “love of ugliness.” Similarly, although there are aspects of “Pillars of Creation” that preclude an overall sense of beauty, there is not anything aesthetically grotesque, disgusting, or horrifying about the image either. Considering that the photo possesses neither beauty nor ugliness, yet still possesses some sort of aesthetic value, there could exist a third aesthetic quality, awe—a measure of impressiveness—which is independent of the aesthetics discussed in “Kalliphobia.” This quality, which is unrelated to the beauty (or lack thereof) in the photograph, is what has established its popularity among laypeople as well as astronomers.
The two most awe-inspiring qualities of the “Pillars of Creation” originate from the subject itself. First, the scale required to meaningfully describe anything about the pillars leaves people astonished. The pillar formation is located 38 quadrillion miles away. Reaching this distance from Earth, traveling at the fastest speed possible in the universe (the speed of light, equal to 669,600,000 miles per hour), would take about 6,500 years (this is the distance in “light-years”). Of course, to be seen from so far away, the pillars themselves must be quite large, and yet it is still shocking to hear that the largest pillar stretches 23 trillion miles (or four light-years) high (Hester). The sheer size of the pillars inspires the second source of awe: that the pillars exist at all. The “Pillars of Creation” photograph proves that somewhere in space these pillars really do exist: that nature has found a way to assemble massive quantities of dust and gas into these spectacular towers. When dealing with awe, it is often some physical (or existential) property rather than a traditional aesthetic property that impresses and wows the viewer.
Danto argues that all aesthetic descriptions, that is, adjectives describing the content of the art rather than the physical piece of artwork, can be grouped under either “the beautiful, the ugly, [or] the ordinary” (Danto 29). The deep-space photograph introduces a complication to that taxonomy: the “Pillars of Creation” photograph is neither beautiful nor ugly, and by virtue of the subject’s location, it is by no means ordinary either. Danto’s third aesthetic, “ordinary,” does not actually describe an aesthetic at all, but rather describes the lack of an aesthetic—the condition of existence and nothing else. In contrast, to be awe-inspiring involves more than the default quality of mere existence.
The aesthetic belonging to the “Pillars of Creation” is identified by its ability to elicit gasps by its aptly named “breathtaking” views. The condition of awe tends to arise from something unexpected in the work, such as in Dieter Roth’s Reykjavik Slides, which exhibits a photographic slide of the front of every single house in Reykjavik, Iceland, thirty thousand in all. While Danto notes that the content of this work is essentially “ordinary” (Danto 29) there is still something awe-inspiring about the scope of it, considering the monumental task Roth faced in taking a picture of each house in an entire city. The presentation of this work, though, does not immediately awe viewers because the slides are not displayed all at once, but rather are shown from eight slide projectors (Danto 24). Only after reading a description of the exhibit or drawing an inference from the endless cycle of photographs (thus understanding the work involved in preparing the exhibit) could the viewer be awed by the photographs.
Similarly, the “Pillars of Creation” photograph is not labeled with the colossal scope of the gas clouds. Instead, the viewer is left wondering why a photograph of three dust mounds is impressive until she learns that the mounds, which look rather petite in the photograph, are trillions of miles tall. Without this element of the unexpected, both exhibits would radiate only a hint of awe, rather than the striking, breathtaking awe they inspire.
Unlike Reykjavik Slides, though, “Pillars of Creation” reveals surprise after surprise, and each new photographic and scientific tidbit only augments the viewer’s awe of the photograph. The imperfections due to the medium, space photography, serve as an entryway to the story of the photograph’s journey from the cameras’ exposures to the final, polished product. Each major step in this story is a step directly and unequivocally away from what the viewer would expect from a beautiful, or even an ugly, photograph. First, the scientists who took this photograph did not frame the shot, but rather, due to the logistics and limitations of working with remote cameras, simply told the telescope to point towards the Eagle Nebula and take an exposure (Space Telescope Science Institute). Traditionally, photographers can make photographs beautiful because they take time to frame the shot, or at the very least to know what their subjects look like. These photographs never truly represent real life because the photographers have in some way influenced the subject or the way they frame the subject. The “Pillars of Creation” photographers did neither of these. The end product of this impersonal and literally robotic photography, as expected, is “not beautiful, not ugly, but the way things are” (Danto 29).
Unfortunately, though, the photograph does not actually represent exactly how things are, or even exactly how the camera saw the individual parts that make up the image. First and foremost, since the Eagle Nebula is 6,500 light-years away, the light captured by the Hubble Space Telescope left its source 6,500 years ago. The image displayed today represents what existed thousands of years ago. In fact, it is possible that the gas clouds in the photograph do not exist anymore. They could have been annihilated centuries or millennia ago, and we will have no way of knowing until 6,500 years after the event. Reykjavik Slides can confirm what houses in Reykjavik looked like in the late 20th century, and if there is any change, news of it will be spread almost instantly (Danto 24). Knowing that “Pillars of Creation” might not even exist anymore gives a sense of urgency and ephemerality to the photograph. The photograph will still exist whether or not the gas clouds are obliterated.
After the initial exposures of the 6,500-year-old light pattern, the scientists faced several challenges in assembling the final image to release to the public. First, when the telescope’s lenses were exposed, they were instantly struck by subatomic particles called cosmic rays that registered in the photographs, turning the space shot into something resembling a Jackson Pollock painting. By comparing exposures taken only fractions of a second apart (and therefore containing different patterns of streaks), the scientists were able to piece together a streak-free image. Second, the camera capturing the upper-right corner of the photograph took a much more detailed shot than the other cameras, and consequently it had to be resized to fit the scale of the rest of the photo, giving it its characteristic blank corner. Finally, the Hubble Space Telescope did not take full-color images of the formation. Rather, it used “filters” to capture the relative intensities of three specific chemical elements. Once more, this is a direct result of the technological limitations of the telescope, and not of human deception (Hester). The photograph is colored according to the differences between the three filtered images, and in that respect it actually conveys more information (that is more useful) than the original black-and-white shots, or than a true-color image would. Modern science’s ability to transform grainy, dissimilarly sized black-and-white images into the spectacular vista of “Pillars of Creation” makes the photograph even more awe-inspiring. Consequently, the photograph most likely would not have been as popular had it been presented in its original form.
Although the colored image is not beautiful, it does possess more beauty than the grayscale version. By trying to infuse beauty in the “Pillars of Creation,” the scientists “politicized beauty” (Danto 25–26) to achieve their own ends, namely the advancement of the Hubble Project, for if the photograph had public support, politicians would be more likely to fund and continue the Hubble Project. Their attempts to increase the beauty of the photograph might not have succeeded from the traditional aesthetic standpoint. Yet, through a combination of scientific and aesthetic analysis, it is still possible to consider the photograph beautiful. We are left in awe: the work that went into the production of this photograph, the mind-boggling size and remoteness of the subject, and the attempts by the scientists to use their work to garner public support is, in and of itself, beautiful.
Danto, Arthur. “Kalliphobia in Contemporary Art.” Art Journal 63.2 (2004): 24–35. Print.
Hester, Jeff. “The Pillars of Creation.” 2004. Photograph. PBS. Web. 23 Sept. 2009.
Space Telescope Science Institute. “Team Hubble.” HubbleSite. STScI, n.d. Web. 23 Sept. 2009.