Home > Operational Image, planetary > Astronomical imaging to operational images

Astronomical imaging to operational images

A short excerpt from the forthcoming Operational Images book (University of Minnesota Press, 2023), on early 20th century astrophotography as it offers a glimpse into an alternative lineage of operational images, planetary computation, and data/measurement.

“However, discussing Leavitt gives us insight into the work of remote sensing and images that become operationalized for data analysis, in addition to dispelling the often overly male-inventor and scientist-focused narratives (including those concerning operational images). This applies to many of the other contributions too: the photographic plate collection becomes the scaffolding for advanced work in spectral classification and cataloging (Annie Jump Cannon) and remote sensing (calculation of “chemical composition of stars” in Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin’s work), alongside the Leavitt Law as an example of operational images, too: “a tool to calculate distance in space with the use of Cepheid variable fluctuations.” Leavitt’s and others’ contribution thus is not so much on photography as a particular technology or genre of images but as the basis for an analysis of data and an extraction of features that become significant for questions of remote sensing. Such work becomes part of the lineage of operational images that are less interesting as images on their own but rather as part of a broader infrastructure of skills, labor, techniques, and technologies, and how institutions assemble images for their particular needs and uses.”


In our example of the astronomical something shifted when light was observed, recorded, and sent across a geographical distance—perhaps a lot of things transformed from the planes of observation and appreciation of high altitude air and clear skies to the photographic exposure and the plates that became one chain along the way before Leavitt, Cannon, and others interpret and synthesize (compute) these into the pithy but important results that ensued: “A straight line can readily be drawn among each of the two series of points corresponding to maxima and minima, thus showing that there is a simple relation between the brightness of the variables and their periods. The logarithm of the period increases by about 0.48 for each increase of one magnitude in brightness.”

Plate 1 and Figure 1 from Leavitt and Pickering’s 1912 article “Periods of 25 Variable Stars in the Small Magellanic Cloud.”

Where is the image here in this diagram, in such a description? On the photographic plates or their analysis, the moments of exposure in the Peruvian landscapes, in the logistics of transporting those images to Cambridge, in the trained analysis of composite photographs, or somewhere else along the way of transforming light? Or, perhaps, the notion of operational ties together a multitude of such material events, sites, and their abstractions and assembles them into a useful notion of the operational image that, as a term, itself is invented much later and for a different purpose, but might itself become useful to speak of infrastructure, logistics, and images that transform from visual to invisual, from ways of seeing to ways of calculating.

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