How do we look at the world before us? What is the quality of attention we bring to our environment, and what do we do with what we see? These are key questions that have been raised recently by authors and artists alike (Norman Ackroyd, Tim Robinson, Richard Long, Sue Clifford and Angela King, to name a few). It is perhaps his extraordinary and particular capacity for ‘watching narrowly’ that has ensured the popularity of Gilbert White for well over two hundred years now. Since White’s time, however, disciplines, both academic and professional, have become increasingly atomised. But are the lines between the different qualities of attention we bring to the world as clear as they seem?
In 2012 the artist Sophy Rickett met with the astronomer Dr Roderick Willstrop in her new role as an Artist Associate at the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge University. As an astronomer during the 1980s, Dr Willstrop had designed and built the Three Mirror Telescope, a camera telescope which produced black and white negatives of the night sky until 1991. An exhibition, Objects in the Field, recently in Cambridge at Kettles Yard and now moving on to Paris this weekend, reflects on their encounters with a new set of prints from the original negatives. These are prints though, that, this time, were developed with an eye for their aesthetic rather than their scientific quality. To accompany the prints, Sophy also wrote the following piece and exhibited it in a small booklet.
OBJECTS IN THE FIELD
The machine in the corner of the consulting room is on wheels. There is a chinrest with a pad of disposable paper strips, so that my skin won’t have to make contact with the same surface that someone else’s has.
I might put my chin on the rest and it might get warm, and the paper strips might buckle.
‘Put your chin on the rest’
I don’t want to put my chin on the rest.
‘Put your chin on the rest’
I put my chin on the rest and it feels unnatural, my neck strains.
‘Put your hands down’
I do as he says. I look forward and stare into a tiny point of light that wafts up, down, to the left, to the right. Freshly shaven, his face inches closer, hidden by the moving point of light. I adjust my focus and there he is, this unfamiliar person, receding into the dark.
‘Don’t look at me, look at the light’
I feel uncomfortable with the intimacy of the exchange, the unbalance of him looking deep into my eye.
I must have needed to wear glasses for a while. I don’t know what prompted the examination, whether I was showing signs of not being able to see, how clear it was to others that the world was shrinking around me. We lived by the sea, it was rural, not much light pollution, but still I would have not, until that point ever seen the stars, barely even, the moon.
We went to the hospital for my eye appointments. My mum seemed not to move as we waited. I looked up at her from my place, examining the side of her face, the set of her jaw. The sweet trolley would appear at the end of the corridor pushed by a struggling tea lady in a gingham smock. She was nice, reassuring.
‘Can I have some sweets?’
And two minutes after that, the sweets would be gone, and the trolley would be making its way away down the long corridor, its black rubber wheels spinning inefficiently over the polished floor tiles, scuffing them as it went.
Eventually my eyes would be tested in that corridor, sitting in a big black chair, with the card to read from hung on the opposite wall. The nurse put a heavy frame on me and I felt the weight of it bearing down on my nose. The lenses were in a wooden tray on a table between us, each stored, in order of thickness, in its own felt lined compartment. She’d choose a lens, and carefully place it into the frame and the letters became clearer, but still, I would rather not have been sitting there, people walking past.
Back at home I put on my new glasses and for the first time I can see clearly beyond the middle distance. The tree I am looking at is alive, each and every leaf a separate, distinct entity. A movement of wind causes boughs to bend. They move and shake separately and also as one. It is all connected, one organism, but made up of a million shades of colour, inflections of movement.
Years later on my way to Asia, my backpack freezing in the hold, I open my eyes as I drift awake. The cabin lights are dimmed and all around my fellow passengers sleep. Outside through the curved frame of the cabin window, the sky is bristling with stars, and below I can see the line of the horizon, backlit by the rising sun, a perfect line of brilliant pink light stretching away, far out into the distance.
I waited for him in the library. It wasn’t the first time we’d met but it was the first time I had any clear sense of what I wanted to see. We’d spoken before about the Three Mirror Telescope and at a table in his office the first time we’d met, he’d shown me the working prototype. He talked me through its internal mechanisms, hesitantly at first, as if the details, its idiosyncrasies were coming back to him as he spoke, remembering with his hands. I hadn’t been sure what I was looking at. I’d felt confused, bereft of knowledge, with a sense that my understanding only seemed to converge with his on the subject of photography, and also I realized later, optics.
‘Who are you waiting for?’
‘He might not be in until later – he often comes in during the afternoon as he still makes his observations every night’
I hadn’t realized that…
‘Well, three nights a week…’
I picture him at dusk making his way down the path to the telescope.
When he arrives in the library, I ask if he still makes his observations. He doesn’t – it turns out that he used to make them every night. Well, three nights a week.
‘Did you do it alone?’
‘I suppose I didn’t think it would be fair, asking a research student to sit with me all through the night. I didn’t really need anyone else.’
I imagine him at work. Each negative had to be prepared individually, the film sensitized and customised to fit the carrier by a specially constructed device that punched a circle of exactly the right dimensions into a sheet of 5×4 film. He’d make up to four exposures a night, and during each one would watch the telescope shifting its position as he had programmed it to do, compensating for the movement of the stars it was photographing as they tracked across the sky.
‘And when did you stop?’
‘Oh, when I retired, about ten years ago’
The 125 negatives he made during the first two years of the twelve that the telescope was functional are stored in his office. It was completed in 1989, and in 1991 the machine was adapted to record digital images, which transformed the exposure time from 40 minutes to 90 seconds. He flicks through the negatives, each one in its own envelope, marked with the date, the length of exposure, the co-ordinates of the field of view, other technical details. One of the first negatives he shows me is of a comet. He hands it to me and as I hold it up to the light, I can see the distinctive shape of a comet. I’m struck that it is a proper photograph – full of its own subject. Later on I think about the chronology, and about how that one of the comet must have been made years after the telescope was modified to record images digitally.
‘What will happen to the negatives eventually?’
‘I will deposit them with the museum archive.’
‘If I print them, will the prints be of scientific interest?’
‘No, these were taken twenty years ago, and not properly calibrated. A few of the nearest stars move slightly against the background of the others, and any planets will have gone around their orbits four or five times. These are a record of the skies as they were twenty years ago.’
He leads the way outside, and we walk towards the wooden building which houses the telescope. The day is bright and blustery, spots of rain in the sky. The exterior paintwork of the building is peeling, the little padlock stiff with rust, and inside, the black painted metalwork of the telescope is dusty, insect wings hang off threads of cobweb in the corners. The telescope is set in the middle of the room, on an equatorial mounting, I have read. Its design is based on the principles of light reflection, and he explains how it enables very clear images to be made of a much larger field of view than had previously been possible with a reflecting telescope.
There is a notice board with a display of images produced by the telescope, which seems to have been prepared for an open day held several years before. The prints are attached to the board with drawing pins at each corner, while the explanatory texts, brittle with age, flap in the wind. I look at the photographs critically, thinking only of aesthetics, no real idea what I’m looking at, and despite the captions, much understanding of their significance. But still they are photographs, and I can’t help myself judging them on that basis.
‘This must have been one of the last telescopes to be made that used film – I mean before everything went digital…’
‘Oh’. He pauses and thinks… ‘I wouldn’t go that far.’
‘Are you going to make more prints?’
‘The darkrooms are all gone now.’
I think about printing them myself. I think about the dialogue between us – we have the photographic process in common, but some of the language we use to think about our work is not shared. Later we look through the box of negatives, and make a note of which ones I take. The next day in the darkroom, circles of the night sky darken in the safelight as the developer gently softens the surface of the paper.
‘Will it be used for observations again?’
‘Probably not – it has fallen into disrepair. The mirrors are corroded.’
‘Why did you stop?’
‘Well, I became chair of the Libraries Committee. So I had all sorts of other duties. But I did say to Martin Rees at the time, that if any money became available to make a Three Mirror Telescope with a larger aperture, then I would like to be involved.’
I try to find more information. I can’t believe that’s the end of the story. I can only find fragments, the tail-end of a scientific dispute, where the author describes the Three Mirror Telescope as ‘arguably the most significant advance in astronomical optics in recent decades’.
I read that a proposal to build a bigger version of the Three Mirror Telescope was rejected by the Science and Engineering Research Council in 1987. This was just after Roderick’s working prototype was completed, and two years before the Three Mirror Telescope was to become fully functional in 1989. And I read that in 2000, a team of scientists in Arizona won approval to build a telescope of this type, slightly modified to allow the use of many CCDs, with an 8 metre aperture.
I think of him when I read these details, and wonder how many more I have missed.
I am on a train as it pulls out of a small seaside station.
Two boys are standing on the sea wall, framed by an expanse of sea and sky, a shallower paddling pool in front of them. They are different ages. The younger of the two is waving at the train, a big smile on his face, full of childish enthusiasm. The older boy, I notice, as he raises it high above his head, is holding a boulder. But the younger boy has not seen it – it is as if his whole being is taken up with the wave.
So the older boy is holding this boulder above his head, while the younger boy is waving manically, and just for a moment they are frozen like that, in a kind of muted hiatus. And then the boulder is slammed, whoosh, into the water and it soaks the younger boy with a splash. And at once the waving stops, and he sees he is all wet, but there is a hesitation before it seems to dawn what has happened.
Through the double glass window of the moving train, I am transfixed.
I see the younger boy begin to take the long slow turn to face his friend.
I see just the beginning of what is to pass between them, a fragment of story as it begins to unfold.
And the train speeds up and then I have gone.
Sophy Rickett is an artist who lives and works in London. Solo exhibitions include Chateau de Lichtenberg, Alsace; Arnolfini, Bristol; De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill; Brancolini Grimaldi, London; Ffotogallery Cardiff. Group exhibitions include Museum of Modern Art, Moscow; Centre Rhenan d’Art Contemporain, Alsace; Galleria Civica, Modena, Italy; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Il Museo di Trento, Italy. Her work is included in several public collections in Italy, France and the US including Musée des Beaux Art Nantes, Pompidou in Paris and the Federal Reserve in Washington. In 1995 a monograph was published on her work to date by Photoworks/Steidl. She is currently working on a collaborative project with artist Bettina von Zwehl, which has been commissioned by Library of Birmingham and Fotogalleriet, Oslo.
Objects in the Field will be presented by Brancolini Grimaldi at this year’s edition of Paris Photo, Grand Palais, 14th – 19th November 2013.