Photographing Isolation and Connection in the Stars
Astrophotography in a Wisconsin summer consists of hitching my tripod and camera case to the back of my bicycle and riding well outside the reach of the city of Madison’s downtown lights. My equipment and myself both smell potently of lemon eucalyptus from my mosquito spray. The night resonates with the hum of katydids, clouds of insects hovering near my headlamp like atomic orbitals around a nucleus. The air is warm and the wind languid, heavy with humid lethargy. During the summer, it is easy to stay out until the small hours of the morning, immersed in long exposure work, holding the shutter open to capture the stripe of a Perseid meteor or the faint luster of Andromeda.
Astrophotography in a Wisconsin winter is an exercise in efficiency. With roads too slick for bicycles, stargazing spots have to be within walking distance, close enough for me to make the journey home in the extreme cold. After an hour, my fingers are so numb and clumsy that I struggle to tighten the tripod’s ballhead to hold the camera in place. If I rest a shin against my tripod, I can feel the freezing steel through my clothes.
The snow softens the slick surface of Lake Mendota and turns the rust-colored treetops pale. The sky seems huge—a blue so dark and deep that it approaches violet, the stars piercingly bright in the brittle air. The night is silent. My mask, adept at protecting others during the day and keeping my face warm at night, muffles even the sound of my breathing.
I hear from my friends and colleagues during regular pandemic check-ins that the sameness of their daily environments, combined with a loss of routine and the loneliness of social isolation, is changing their perception of time. The passing days have turned sludgy, treacle-like: sloughing forward inexorably but difficult to segment or partition.
Such observations have made me realize that the most concrete markers of time for me amidst COVID-19 have come from my habits as an astrophotographer. I have watched the seasons slip by behind the lens of my camera. The height of summer arrived on the diffuse blue tail of Comet NEOWISE as it zipped through the inner solar system, not to be seen again for another 6,800 years.
Autumn’s passing was marked by Mars’s nearness to Earth during its opposition, when directly opposite the sun. The imminent New Year of 2021 seemed less a matter of fact than the planetary conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, their closest alignment since 1623. In July, I had to crane my neck to see Ursa Major. By December, the Big Dipper was so low that the city lights dimmed the constellation’s smaller stars. I walked my equipment down to the lake one evening only to find the piers and lifts stored for the season, but before I could mourn the loss of a favorite stargazing spot the shallows of Lake Mendota were frozen solid, and I could venture onto the ice in search of unobstructed sky.
The stars changed. The world turned. Time, it seemed, passed. But like Murakami’s narrator in the short story “Yesterday,” who peered through a porthole at Erika Kuritani’s frozen moon and was “unable to share its cold beauty with anyone,” I felt peripheral, at the far edge of the unassailable distance between Earth and the stars, between one day and the next.
COVID-19 finds many of us isolated in private spheres trying to reach out to others in similar private spheres, all the while wondering how communication is possible and how connection is maintained. If the days blending together and the months lurching ahead constitute COVID’s temporal register, then its spatial dimension is only too evident in the fact people have spent those same days and months separated from each other.
In that regard, stargazing hasn’t so much provided a comfort for me over the past year, as it has highlighted a new set of constellations: associations between space and time, separation and proximity. Looking up at the most distant objects in the universe instantiated my lockdown ennui into an almost familiar type of solitude, one recognizable to stargazers as a paradoxical mix of immense isolation and sublime intimacy.
How can both exist? Like calling my family on FaceTime, a sense of presence persists in the face of obvious absence. Like looking at the night sky, correspondence boils down to a question of transmission, both across and in spite of distance. What are we communicating? And how does being apart make that communication not impossible but inevitable? I try to locate the answers in pictures of the stars. Astrophotography has assumed a particular significance in my life over the last eight months because it traffics in a visual economy that entangles both separation and connection.
Writing on the photographic image, Susan Sontag alleges that to be a photographer is to know the subject of the lens in the abstract and to base one’s judgment, as pathologists do, on the sediments of reality, like pickled organs kept in formaldehyde. She writes that “a photograph is not only an image (as a painting is an image), an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stenciled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask.”
In the grammar of an astrophotograph, deep space is inseparable from deep time—the farther someone peers into the universe, the older the objects become. The universe is so big, and it takes light so long to reach human eyes, that the information communicated by an astronomical image may well be posthumous. Starlight is a like a footprint, per Sontag, or a fossil, per Kathryn Yusoff, a “leftover form . . . no longer belonging to the world.”
Moreover, space is not static. The horizon of the universe is pushing continuously outwards, expanding like the rubber skin of a balloon. According to Henrietta Swan Leavitt and Edwin Hubble, there is a correlation between distance and velocity—in other words, nearby objects are moving away slowly while distant ones are moving away rapidly. There is no medial coordinate from which all stellar bodies are receding. Seen from any star, the space between all other stars appears to be expanding at a velocity proportional to the distance between them.
Here is no longer fixed and now is no longer linear, unidirectional, and homogeneous. Both the Leavitt-Hubble model and pandemic isolation render familiar constructions of time and space strange. But in the case of the former, what makes the reciprocal constructions of distance and motion possible is the idea that spacetime itself is constructed in terms of inertial agents rather than universal laws. The physical characteristics of the universe are intuitable only by comparison to other characteristics. Such a holism suggests that even at great distances, the mechanics of the universe provide interaction and sanction communication.
The astrophotograph serves as a visual reproduction of these contiguous yet distinct islands in spacetime, a manifold where space is tensile and time, tenseless, merely a location and observation dependent quantity.
An expanding universe projects a dynamic view of reality, at once the product of light left behind and light which remains to be seen. Astrophotographs codify distance into any attempt to image(ine) the universe beyond the Earth. And distance formalizes separation, even as that separation introduces a means by which to contemplate the Earth’s place in the cosmos without losing sight of the universe’s mutually deterministic characteristics. Separation and transmission are implicated in the construction of one another.
Soon after election night, almost certainly in a fit of anxious panic, I spent five hours stargazing. I pitched my equipment in the lee of the stone fireplace on Frautschi Point, part of the Lakeshore Nature Preserve on the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s campus. The first half of November had been unseasonably mild, but with the leaves newly fallen and the snow still weeks away the shoreline looked brown and parched. A swathe of Milky Way arced luxuriantly over Lake Mendota, its reflection on the lake’s smooth surface soothing the miles and miles of water with all the quiet cleanliness of midwinter ice. The distant glow of city light backlit the clouds into soft, feathery transparencies. Stars defined the edges of the trees.
I heard the man fishing before I saw him: his boat rocking gently on the water, discernible as an intermittent wet slap against the hull. Radio chatter ebbed and surged with coverage of the presidential race. The delayed shutter on my camera caught the small boat drifting across the water, its skipper leaving in his wake a brittle shred of shadow, little more than a dark condensation of the air. The exposure of the photograph—twenty seconds—elongated the green lamp on the boat’s bow and the red on its stern. The suspended threads reflected in the water as two shimmering pillars.
An inscription of time, written in light—a record and a transmission, stretched across the distance between us.
The skipper spotted my headlamp as the boat drifted around the point, and he asked me, raising his voice to be heard on the shore, if I was out taking pictures of the moon. The moon and other things, I confirmed. We exchanged a few words, calling back and forth across the water, before the current carried him past me and his radio faded away.
It occurs to me only now that our brief exchange had been the first in-person conversation I’d had with a stranger since March 2020.
Connection, even in spite of distance, is both experienced and produced by my astrophotography work, even as it reflects my very down-to-Earth experiences in the current moment. While solitude as it pertains to Earth’s place in the universe is often read through its lonely implications––”a mote of dust,” wrote Carl Sagan, “suspended in a sunbeam”–– light and motion are highly coherent systems. More, the nature of spacetime and the potential of distance to facilitate transmission are neither mutually exclusive nor contradictory. This negotiation does not result in more disconnected people and planets but in the transmutation of isolation into correspondence. Astrophotography can become a means by which connections are reified, and lonelinesses soothed.
Alone on the ice, shivering under the stars. Smacking mosquitos off my arms as I locate Polaris in my scope. Kicking the dirt, then the snow, as I wait for my shutter to close. A brief, awkward call-and-response across thirty yards of open water. Stringing together hundreds of stills over two hours. In these rituals, I wonder if cosmological correspondence is the cure to the same isolation that engenders it: an elimination of distance made possible through the intimacy that same distance enacts.
Featured image: Finding celestial bodies over the water. October, 2020.
All photographs by Kaitlin Moore.
Kaitlin Moore is a third year Ph.D. student in Literary Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Kohler Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute of Discovery. Their interdisciplinary work focuses on the exchanges between science and literature, with particular emphasis placed on using cosmology and quantum mechanics as inquiries into poetic practices that span deep time and deep space. Instagram. Contact.