In case you missed it, on Sunday night NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory published the first photographs from Curiosity, the latest in a series of NASA-built, carefully named visitors to Mars.
The pictures from Curiosity are not the first Martian images beamed back to Earth from an earth-originated spacecraft. Those came from NASA’s Viking 1 lander, in 1976. The very first one is at right.
The pictures from Curiosity aren’t exactly Robert Adamses, but they’re better quality than the Viking picture. In fact, the Mars photography from Curiosity is so much better that it reminded me of tropes and views from early, er, Earth photography.
Here is the first picture that Curiosity took and sent to Earth. (The image is courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.)
This picture from Curiosity is full of the shadow of the instrument that took the picture.
I don’t know that there’s agreement on what 19th-century photographer first included his own shadow and the shadow of his equipment in his pictures, but it was a beloved technique. For example:
That’s a shadow of O’Sullivan’s head and hand in the lower left-hand corner. Given the context of the picture — O’Sullivan was the photographer for the Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel, more commonly known as the King Survey, which explored lands between Nevada and Wyoming and set the stage for the near-elimination of Native Americans from those lands — O’Sullivan’s inclusion of himself is almost menacing.
Another great example comes in one of Carleton Watkins’s last pictures.
Carleton Watkins, Golden Feather Mining Claim No. 9, 1891. Collection of the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. Via Calisphere.
The inclusion of self in a mammoth-plate picture was something Watkins did in only three mammoth-plate photographs that have survived, so it was hardly a favorite technique.
Carleton Watkins, Yucca Forest, Mojave Desert, ca. 1880. Collection of the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, via Calisphere.
The Mojave picture, in which the apparatus used to enable the photograph — a railroad car — fills much of the frame, is most similar to the Curiosity picture.
But the Golden Feather photograph is the better picture, the one that allows us to consider why a 19thC photographer who routinely kept out of his own pictures, included himself. Or, to put it another way: Why did Watkins do it here, at this stage of his career, forty years in, at age 62, when he was long past the point at which most artists are doing unfamiliar things?
Watkins was an unparalleled master of composition, better at structuring a picture than even contemporary American painters, who had available to them the advantage of fiction. In this picture. taken at the Golden Feather Mining Claim in Butte County, California, Watkins seems to have decided that the shadow of what may be a short beam-built bridge was a desirable element that would bring the viewer into the picture. The problem was, having made that decision, there wasn’t anything to visually connect the shadow with the mining apparatus. So Watkins inserted himself, thus brilliantly creating a composition that leads the eye through the different parts of the mine’s structure.
(In case you’re curious, this is the third picture in which Watkins included himself.)
Here’s the second picture we have from Curiosity:
It shows more of the Martian surface than we’ve seen before and presents it as a vast expanse of rocky flatness. It reminded me of this picture by Canadian photographer Humphrey Lloyd Hime:
Humphrey Lloyd Hime, The prairie on the banks of the Red River, looking south, 1860. Collection of the Beinecke Library, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.
As it turns out, there are fewer 19thC photographs of desolate, empty land in the western North American plains than you might expect. (Write this down to the impact of the railroad, which enabled — and funded — much early Western photography. Photographs by railroad photographers such as Andrew J. Russell and Charles R. Savage are full of rivers and infrastructure, the types of details that would make prospective settlers think they could farm a good living if they followed the road West.)
This picture is from a remarkable, little-known portfolio of pictures Hime took of western Canada in 1860, before railroads moved across the Canadian West. According to Hime’s notes, the emptiness of the landscape is a result of a grasshopper infestation that wiped out prairie grasses. Conversely, Mars is desolate because, well, it’s desolate.
The similarity of the pictures from then and now reminded me that the frontier is the frontier, whether it’s the American West in the 19th-century, or Mars in the 21st.
Nota bene: The Hime album is well worth perusing, but the Beinecke’s website doesn’t serve a direct link. Go here, then type in “Humphrey Lloyd Hime.” The album is the only returned item. I learned about it from Martha Sandweiss’s remarkable 2004 book “Print the Legend.” Random factoid: Hime gave up photography not long after his trip west, moved into business and later became president of the Toronto Stock Exchange.
Another fun fact: I love this artist listing in MoMA’s online collection database. I believe the Viking 1 picture is in the museum’s collection as well.