Looking down on Earth from hundreds of miles up in space we see an expansive stretch of the North American continent.
A storm brews to the west, and glowing patches are scattered across the landscape - the various small towns and cities of the Midwest.
But our eye is drawn to the bright and familiar cluster of lights tracing the curve of Lake Michigan’s abyss. That constellation of light could be an exploding star, not what we suddenly recognize it to be: the familiar grid of Chicago’s streets radiating out from the city center.
These images, taken early Tuesday morning by “bloggernaut” retired Air Force Col. Ron Garan, Jr. aboard the International Space Station, seem miraculous, even awe-inspiring. On Chicagoist Chuck Sudo wrote: “This is why some kids grow up to be astronauts.”
These images are almost a genre: photos taken from space, not of the cosmos, but looking back at our own planet. The first and most iconic, Earthrise, is a 1968 photo taken by astronaut William Anders from the Apollo 8 mission.
But what do these images mean? And why do they resonate so deeply?
The power of these images starts with what one could call the sublime, according to Douglas Nickel, a photo historian and scholar at Brown University. “Being able to see something large and expansive that makes you feel small, viewed from a tremendous distance, is an aesthetic that predates photography’s invention,” Nickel said. “It’s the kind of emotion one experiences standing at the foot of a mountain or at the edge of the ocean or anything that is overwhelming in its immensity and makes you feel small.”
So these images make us feel tiny, and humbly insignificant in the face of the infinite. But the opposite is also true. “There’s a sense of mastery you always get when you’re up above something and looking down on it," said Nickel. "It’s the point of view of God looking down on creation.”
Power. Mastery. Having conquered the vast unknown. Nickel drew a connection between these images taken from space, and photos taken at the frontier of the American west during the age of Manifest Destiny.
The photo above was taken by Timothy O'Sullivan, a land surveyor who travelled the Western frontier in the period just after the Civil War. The vast and empty Nevada desert is strikingly similar to the empty lunar landscape one sees in many photographs taken from the moon. (And is similarly strewn with footsteps.) In O’Sullivan’s photo we see his covered wagon and team of horses; in photos like Garan’s or in those taken by Apollo astronauts on the moon, we see the corner of the International Space Station or other lunar crafts. “You can look at a lot of space pictures,” Nickel said, “and very often you see in a corner of the picture the wheel of the rover or the space craft that’s landed, and then this unfamiliar rocky landscape.”
“The vehicle represents home and how you get to that place. And the landscape represents the thing you’ve not seen before. It’s the juxtapositions of human imposition and untouched landscape that represents a marvelous new area of exploration.”
These images give us a sense of being tiny in an infinitely large universe, but they also allow us to experience the kind of power and mastery that goes to the heart of space exploration. They are a record of having conquered the unconquerable, of having literally and metaphorically put our flag on the moon. And what could represent the juxtaposition of home and the foreign territories together more perfectly than the American flag on the moon?
These photos also contain another dual truth – one about humanity’s impact on the planet.
Terry Evans is a highly regarded practitioner of space photography’s first cousin – aerial photography. For a year and a half, Evans made helicopter flights over Chicago and surrounding suburbs to capture images of the metropolis: its neighborhoods, its industry, its parks and infrastructure. The result was a collection of images titled Revealing Chicago.
Evans said the project’s purpose “was to show the ecological interconnectedness of the region. And to show how political boundaries intersect natural areas.” Her photos document the landscape in terms of human impact and human scale.
“The world has become a human scaled landscape in most places,” Evans said. “In an aerial photograph the way I’ve always understood scale has been with some human mark on the landscape.”
“But I went to Greenland and did some photography of the melting Jakobshavn Glacier and there were no human signs on the ice. It was very confusing and frustrating because I didn’t have any sense of scale. The iceberg might have been some pile of snow I heaved off my sidewalk. Or it might have been 30 stories high, which it in fact was, approximately.”
These photos depict our relationship, at true scale, to the world we live in. They also show us our hand in changing that world. How do we feel about the fact that what we see in Garan’s photos from space is the grid, the lights of the city? Garan’s images are photographic evidence of our own accomplishments, but also of our impact - right down to the familiar, but perhaps not long for this world, orange glow of Chicago’s street lamps.
“I think like most people I was awed,” Evans said about Garan’s images. “Although my first response was not really artistic. It was like, oh my God, we’re using up so much energy. There’s so much light down there in the middle of the night.”
We can marvel at our ability to build a metropolis that can be seen from space, and still worry about its impact.
“Depending on your philosophy,” Nickel said, “you could see human beings as part of the natural order, something that’s risen from it, or something that’s working against it.”