Projecting Martian Photography

Science Fiction Research Association (SFRA)

Georgia Tech, June 2009

This talk is an excerpt from a larger paper on the history of the systematic representation and photography of the planet Mars. I’ll begin with an intro to this larger project before moving to the topic of today’s talk. Beginning with Christiaan Huygens’s sketches of faintly visible surface features in 1659, Mars has since undergone centuries of telescopic observation and cartographic projection. But it is photography that has most fully expressed the desire to experience this point of red light as an actual place. With its increasing particularity and definition, at a remove from Earthly global totalities and yet dispersed through them, Martian photography narrates a deep history of what Lev Manovich in his book The Language of New Media calls “navigable space.” But what makes this more than a story of developments in perspectivalism is the fact that this diverse image archive is organized according to the rationalized grid of Martian cartography. More interesting to me than the development of these images themselves is the construction of a continuity between them, a vast worldbuilding enterprise that has generated countless science and science fictional narratives. Sustaining this continuity is a complex dialectic between projections on the future of technological visuality and the actual evolution of photographic equipment over the course of roughly a century. Ultimately, I am interested in exploring the implications of this term “Martian photography,” implying not to photographs taken by actual Martians, (though this is a topic we will get to today), but a certain modality of photography borne out of a science fictional impulse to commune with otherworldly objects and landscapes, a configuration of the photographic apparatus that builds up hypothetical models, runs simulations, and asks ‘what if’ questions of its own methodology.

At the risk of muddling the historical continuity so important to the larger version of this paper, American astronomer Percival Lowell will figure rather prominently in this excerpt, while in the larger version, I am more broadly concerned with the exchange between science fiction and new media technologies throughout the history of imaging the red planet. So, we will briefly begin at the beginning, work through the image of Mars produced by Lowell, and end with a few final remarks on the recent release of Google Mars.

In the mid-seventeenth century, the Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens recorded the first observable Martian surface feature. A dark, triangular marking, he named it Syrtis Major for its resemblance to Libya’s Gulf of Sidra. The movement of Syrtis across the face of the Martian globe allowed Huygens to calculate the length of the Martian day—twenty- four hours, thirty-seven minutes—and would serve as a point of orientation for many subsequent observers.

The notation of this feature was no small feat. Due to the motion of the earth’s atmosphere above as well as Mars’s atmosphere behind the telescope, the surface of the planet viewed from earth looks something like a rock bed moving under a fast stream. But by the mid nineteenth century, astronomers using more sophisticated instruments were able to see through this blurring motion with increasing particularity.

Several noticed that Syrtis Major and other similar dark patches tapered off into what appeared to be thin, wispy lines. During the orbital opposition of 1877––the roughly biannual point at which Mars and the Earth are closest in their orbits––Giovanni Schiaparelli compiled the first complete cartographic projection of Mars, which he was careful to qualify as “a record of fleeting impressions”.

Schiaparelli’s toponymy follows terrestrial analogues as a matter of shorthand. He writes, “Do not brevity and clarity compel us to make use of words such as island, isthmus, strait, channel, peninsula, cape, etc.? Each of which provides a description and notation of what could otherwise be expressed only by means of a lengthy paraphrase.” This deployment of familiar landscape terminology was fundamental in both drafting and reading these increasingly intricate cartographic projections, especially for Percival Lowell, who took a mistranslation of the Italian word “canali” as “canals” rather than “channels”––to its most literal conclusion.

Building off Schiaparelli’s data and producing the most detailed maps of Mars yet, a small group of American astronomers led by Percival Lowell began arguing in the 1890s that the wispy pattern of straight lines wrapped around the Martian globe was too straight to be anything other than crafted. Lowell interpreted these lines as a vast network of canals, the product of an unimaginable feat of global engineering. His line of reasoning drew on the Kant- Laplace nebular hypothesis of solar system formation, in which Mars, because it is smaller than the earth, cooled out of the cloud of materials surrounding the young sun faster, and therefore began its ecological evolution much earlier. These canals, Lowell argued, were evidence of the desperate attempt of an advanced civilization to stave off extinction after their seas and rivers had all but dried up. Serving as a sort of temporal prism, Mars became a window into a past age before human existence, into the present imagination of an alien other, and toward emergent concerns about the future sustainability of our own ecological patterns. Lowell took Schiaparelli’s terrestrial tagging–—island, isthmus, channel, etc.—–and extrapolated from that system a complex, science fictional scenario.

From 1894 until his death in 1916, Lowell produced thousands of intricate sketches from his observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, gradually piecing together a systematic network of markings composed of both local and general patterns. In the fantastically popular Mars and Its Canals, published in 1907, he writes,

Ubiquitous as it is, the mesh which thus covers the Martian surface like a veil spread completely over it, is unlike a veil in being of irregular texture. Not only are the interstices of various shape and pattern, but the mesh itself is of locally differing size. Though the threads are straight and uniform throughout, they are not all alike, besides being unsymmetrically woven. […] From this it appears that the lines are locally dependent upon the general topography of the fundamental features of the surface. […] The network is not only a mesh de facto, then, but one de jure, which, subsequent to the fashioning of the seas and continents and what these have now become, has been superposed upon them. (188, 191)

Lowell extrapolates two distinct layers from his observations: a general topography and an ornate infrastructure built into that landscape, the former serving as the logical basis for the organization and function of the latter. Like the engineered mesh of canals deployed throughout the landscape, Lowell’s drawings themselves constitute a “veil” of images spread out and wrapped around the entire globe. The methodical continuity of these drawings and the coherent, extrapolative science fiction scenario that they supported became thoroughly ingrained in the popular consciousness, and Lowell’s depiction of a dying planet remained in circulation until the Mariner probes arrived in the mid 1960s.

Though many observers reported seeing the lines, others argued their appearance was little more than an optical illusion, let alone the question of whether they were evidence of an ancient, extraterrestrial civilization. One of the strongest refutations of Lowell’s canal thesis came in 1903, when English astronomers E.W. Maunder and J.E. Evans conducted an experiment in which Greenwich schoolboys were asked to copy the markings on a disk seen from a short distance. Though the markings consisted of a line of detached dots, almost all of the children drew straight, continuous lines. At the height of the so-called “canal controversy,” photography was called upon to once and for all prove the existence of Martian civilization, and provided a powerful counteroffensive in the popular and scientific press, whose attention to the canals had been significantly muted by the illusionist thesis. Lowell’s earliest attempt to photograph the canals was in 1905. These images were so small and the shading so delicate, that it was impossible to reproduce them in print, and they remained unavailable to the wide audience that demanded solid proof. The Lowell group resorted to showing the photographs alongside his drawings at select exhibitions, in order to aid the eye in reading the images, most notably at MIT in early 1906. But by 1907, Lowell and his researchers had developed the photographic technology needed to capture an image of the planet sufficient for reproduction in the popular press.

One of his assistants, writes Lowell’s biographer William Graves Hoyt, “devised a two-way sliding plate holder with which twenty or more planetary images could be recorded on a single plate in a matter of minutes. Each individual exposure was limited to an area of the plate just large enough for the planet’s image, and by moving the plate at right angles […], a series of consecutive exposures could be obtained as fast as the observer’s hand could turn the ratchet and squeeze the shutter bulb.” During the opposition of 1907, Lowell sent an expedition to Alianza, Chile with an 18-inch refracting telescope, where the atmosphere would be thin and seeing conditions would be best. Over a period of three months, the team took 13,000 photographs. The greatest evidence of the canals was found in images 16 through 19, showing what was then referred to as the Nilosyrtis at the base of the famous Syrtis Major.

The photographs provided a kernel of supposedly objective evidence of the structures Lowell claimed to see––he would write that the photographs allowed the canals to “at last speak for their own reality themselves,” and the positive public reception of the images drowned out the small minority of dissent within the scientific community. But Lowell’s credibility at times came into question when the motion of the red planet pushed back on this photographic imposition. When images taken only several days apart showed the appearance of new lines as well as others having disappeared, Lowell was forced to speak of canals being “obliterated” and “constructed” in the short time elapsed, arguing this was only further proof of the Martians’ amazing engineering acumen. It was for cameras in Mars orbit to discover some sixty years later that Lowell’s photographs and sketches captured almost nothing of the planet’s actual topology; they merely reflected shifting patterns and trends in the global movement of sand, as shown in this image with a sandstorm flowing over the Tharsis mountain range, which was previously unknown.

On the one hand, Lowell’s recourse to photography was just one more method to “confound the skeptics,” as he put it. Deemphasizing the importance of the photographs, Lowell attempted to keep the public’s focus on the abilities the “acute-eyed observer” as the only true medium through which the manifest surface of the planet could be faithfully imaged. He writes: “At its best, the camera is hopelessly behind the eye when it comes to the decipherment of planetary detail. To say that the eye is ten times the more perceptive is not to overstep the mark. To try, therefore, to supplant the eye by the camera is time thrown away.”

But however depreciative he was of the new technology, Lowell’s seamless integration of photography into his complex worldbuilding mesh provides a fascinating object for the study of media aesthetics. With Martian photography, images are predicated on preestablished relationships in ostensibly real space, relationships that have already been mapped out with all the resources of empirical rigor. Lowell’s drawings provided the geometric and conceptual grid upon which these fuzzy photographs were subsequently projected, organized, and read.

As if moving to counter the assimilation of any data that would prove dissonant to the operation of his system, a fundamental dimension of the legibility of these photographs resided in Lowell’s emphasis on the potential visibility that future optical technologies would allow. Stressing the provisional status of these first photographs, Martian photography hung together as a set through Lowell’s promise that the mesh would be gradually filled out and articulated by future improvements in photographic technology. This evolutionary narrative of imaging abilities evokes the language of François Arago—–who, incidentally has a crater named after him on Mars––in his 1839 report to the French Chamber of Deputies on subsidizing Daguerre’s development of photography. Arago says, “When inventors of a new instrument apply it to the observation of nature, what they expect of it always turns out to be a trifle compared with the succession of subsequent discoveries of which the instrument was the origin.” Lowell’s entire scientific project seems to incorporate this very factor in that he frames his present photographic maps through the lens of some future extrapolation; and this is a trend that can be found throughout the literature of planetary astronomy and science fiction on Mars. In each of its various configurations, Martian photography speculates not only about the future of planetary exploration or the ancient past of alien civilizations, but speculates also about the limits of photography and the possibilities inherent to the medium.

In Mars and its Canals, Lowell’s heroic narrative of the “acute-eyed observer” equates the cartographic eye with actual bodily transport: he begins the book by describing his observatory: “To select this setting-out station is the first step in the journey upon which everything depends. For it is essential to visual arrival that a departure-point be taken where definition is at its best” (12). This equation of cartographic vision with interplanetary transport maps itself onto a fantasy of photographs taken by actual Martians in the science fiction of the period. In some of the earliest texts in the genre, Martians produced photographs with seemingly infinite resolution that could be scanned, cropped, shrunken down to a single pixel and then enlarged to fill an entire landscape. In Alexander Bogdanov’s Soviet socialist utopia, Red Star, from 1908, Martians visit Earth in order to invite a revolutionary named Leonid to visit their planet so that he can learn the history of their own class struggles and the eventual triumph of socialism on Mars. During his tour, the Martians’ highly advanced photographic technology especially interests Leonid.

‘Its direct-vision magnification is about 600,’ Menni replied, ‘but when that is insufficient we take a photograph and examine it under a microscope, which raises the power to 60,000 or more. The operation only takes about a minute.’ […] The pictures seemed three-dimensional in the transmitted light, and the colors were all quite natural. (40)

A similar prefiguration of this kind of digitized, navigable space occurs in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s 1917 novel, A Princess of Mars, when John Carter is shown fantastic imaging technology by the Martian royal he rescues:

She then explained in general the instruments her people had used and been perfecting for ages, which permit them to throw upon a screen a perfect image of what is transpiring upon any planet and upon many of the stars. These pictures are so perfect in detail that, when photographed and enlarged, objects no greater than a blade of grass may be distinctly recognized. (70)

Lowell’s own writings seem to anticipate a similar kind of photographic encounter with otherworldly space, though formulated at the level of technological evolution itself. Prefacing his own account with the history of mapping Mars, he writes

But although it is the telescopic eye that has increased, not the distance that has diminished, the effect has been kin to being carried nearer the planet and so to a scanning of its disc with constantly increasing particularity. Mankind has to all intents and purposes been journeying Marsward through the years. Any historic account of the planet, therefore, becomes a chronicle of seeming bodily approach. (20)

Here, the diachronic development of optical equipment itself serves to transport the viewer into the space of the image, and the photographic map of Mars as it exists in the present is formulated as a function of the gradual improvement in definition or quality that will be made available by new technologies. In a strange triangulation, the continuity of Martian space as the sum of its photographs is predicated on the provisionality of its individual instantiations.

Lowell’s photographs of sand would turn out to be representative of an important aspect of Martian photography in each of its subsequent developments. Rather than providing us with a point of “visual arrival” on solid ground, this structure of vision deposits us on a map in a perpetual state of renegotiation. Here’s where I think the recent example Google Mars is so fascinating. (PLAY): Google Mars aligns a patchwork of data from US Geological Survey maps produced by Mariner and Viking satellite photographs, from laser altimeters and high- definition cameras aboard the four satellites currently orbiting the planet, as well as panoramic landscape images from each of the landers that have been to the surface.

One could say that the example of Google Mars literalizes, in a somewhat clumsy fashion, a common thread running through the theory of photography, that “the world itself has taken on a photographic face.” Though this appears a tempting if somewhat silly departure point in a topographical allegory for the colonization of the world by the image, this approach would obscure the key fact that for us, Martian space has always been ultimately reducible to the sum of its images, the organization and order of which we have learned to navigate in very particular ways. On one level, we have the sense in which Lev Manovich has used the term “navigable space,” contrasting other types of perspectival representation with that of the computer, and writing that “the key feature of computer space is navigability.” One can trace the technical integration of navigable space into Martian photography to the Viking landers of the 1970s. To accurately control the robotic arms of the the landers as they interacted with the rocks and terrain surrounding their bases, controllers back on earth constructed scale models of the surrounding terrain. Analyzing the photographs taken from Viking cameras, the controllers molded a surrogate landscape in polystyrene with hot knives and hair dryers around replica landers back in Houston. Replacing these physical models in 1997, sensors on the Pathfinder lander produced a geometrical model of the terrain and laid a three-dimensional grid referred to as the “control net” around the path of the Sojourner Truth rover. As the rover began to move, it would take two-dimensional photographs of the landscape, which were then placed in the constantly refreshed grid of the control net “like trompe l’oeil billboards,” in a sort of topological feedback loop.

But navigable space is initially deployed by Lowell as a metaphor for diachronic improvements in imaging technology––recall his line “Any historic account of the planet, therefore, becomes a chronicle of seeming bodily approach.” In this sense, Lowell’s cartographic aesthetic provides us with a deep history of navigable space. Martian photography reveals to us the conditions of possibility in which the specificity of a medium can undo itself from within the limits of its own material support. One can now read the general contours of Martian photography in Lowell’s writings––this centuries’ long tracking shot approximating ‘bodily approach’––as a fundamental part of the Geographic Information System (GIS) aesthetic of Google Mars, manifest in the cohesion of this photographic globe as a fully navigable space (and if there’s any doubt who’s behind this project… a Lowell map feature added to Google Mars 2 weeks ago).

But this deep history can also be traced throughout a wider set of writings in the period as a utopian desire for interplanetary transport and other spaces: there are of course the aforementioned early SF novels and their own projections of the superior abilities of the Martians, as well as countless other works of science fiction that, like Lowell’s photographs, integrate themselves into the rationalized grid of Martian space. These narratives, which provide a mapping function in their own right, from Ray Bradbury to Kim Stanley Robinson, from Stanley Weinbaum to Frederik Pohl, hew closely to the latest geographic data coming from the surface, and integrate themselves into the landscape, as many SF authors maintain complex intertextual relationships between their versions of the planet.

And here is where I think we can see the larger structural similarities between science fiction and the provisionality of these fundamentally unstable cartographic vistas. Certain historically conditioned ways of seeing are required in order for technology to render invisible spaces visible through what appears to be their own volition. The capacity of Martian photography to open up a cohesive, otherworldly space marks a moment in the wider landscape of late 19th and early 20th century media culture in which the dissemination and use of new media were in large part determined by projections of their future abilities. New media, in a word, disappear in the very moment of their use when a significant aspect of one’s interaction with a certain media technology lies in an encounter with its failures and thus its potentiality, a projection of its future configurations. While each of the various photographs of Mars surveyed here represent attempts to triangulate a virtual positionality against a topos that is constantly in motion and continuously remade, it is a rhetoric of provisionality that paradoxically grounds our understanding of these photographs and allows them to hold together as a set. Each photograph of Mars operates in the future perfect tense, leaning into the possibilities that it holds for the incorporation of future images and imaging technology.