v1.2 / David Shannon-Lier: Why I Take Pictures of The Night Sky

“We are ever more aware that we are tiny, ephemeral, inconsequential beings, but we can’t shake the notion that the things we do every day are important and meaningful.”—David Shannon-Lier

The night sky has always provided a sense of direction for what Cornel West calls the “featherless two-legged linguistically conscious creature born between urine and feces whose body will one day be the culinary delight of terrestrial worms”—you and me. David Shannon-Lier’s photographs pay homage to this ancient fascination with direction in its most elemental forms: light and line.

David Shannon-Lier: On Heaven & Earth

By way of introduction, I would like to talk briefly about a photograph that was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in December, 1995, called “The Hubble Deep Field” or HDF. It is one of the most astonishing photographs I have ever come across. The feeling the photograph gives me when I ponder it is the very same feeling that I am hoping to address in the Of Heaven and Earth series.

The idea the scientists behind the Hubble Deep Field had was to take a really long exposure (essentially 10 days) of an ostensibly empty region of sky. When the image was processed, however, it revealed that this patch of sky is not empty at all. Around 3000 objects were identified, and almost all of them were galaxies. Let me say that again in a slightly different way: when you go out at night and look up, there are 3000 galaxies in every area of the sky 1/16th the size of the moon! 3000 galaxies in a square 1/28,000,000th the size of the night sky!

Even though we have spent the last 500 years expanding the scope of the Copernican Revolution (and the HDF perfectly illustrates how vast this expansion is), our notion of the importance of our own lives and actions has not shrunk in proportion. It is this rather beautiful tension that I am addressing with my photographs in this series. We are ever more aware that we are tiny, ephemeral, inconsequential beings, but we can’t shake the notion that the things we do every day are important and meaningful. It is why we make art, why we raise children, why we are kind to strangers, why we make big telescopes and take pictures of the night sky. —Shannon-Lier

This photograph was made while I was in grad school and living in Arizona. In the very early stages of the project, all my photographs were made in my backyard for the simple reason that I messed up so frequently. It made sense to work close to the place where I ate and slept. In the photograph you can see some of the evidence of earlier tests. There is a mark on the fence that was the result of an earlier attempt at a photograph, most likely a failed photograph. There is also a small black mark on the outside corner of the patio, which was a part of an earlier test. When we left the house in Mesa, the backyard was crisscrossed with trenches and markings that I had made in my attempts to nail down my methodology. Seeing this picture, one of my classmates, Clarita Lulić, said, “Your neighbors must think you’re mad!” I took it as a compliment.

I made this photograph while we were living in Farmington, New Mexico. Farmington is a rather dull city, it must be said, but in all my travels, I was most drawn to the landscape there in the northwest corner of New Mexico, particularly a place called Bisti Badlands. It is a landscape unlike any other I have seen, filled with peculiar rock formations, badlands, petrified wood and mudflats. I spent most of those three months visiting that place. In fact, this picture was actually my third attempt at photographing the moonrise in this location. The first time I tried to make the picture I ran out of time; as a result, the set-up looked slipshod. I returned again only to have the sky cloud over during the moon’s rising, forcing me to return yet again. Each of these photographs generally took most of the day (say, from 10am – sunset) to set up. The exposures themselves lasted all night.

I was living in Idaho at this time (my wife is a traveling physical therapist, so we travel a lot) and I decided to plan a photography trip to Arizona to see a good friend and excellent photographer, Thomas Locke Hobbs’ thesis show. When I was down there, I was talking to another friend and top-notch photographer, Michael Lundgren, who knows the southwest better than most. I asked him where I should visit on my way back to Idaho.
“Have you ever been to Muley Point?” he asked.
“No” I replied.
“It’s settled then,” he said, “you have to see Muley Point.”
I am glad I did. It is the most stunning view in all of the southwest and perhaps the entire United States. My thesis advisor, Mark Klett also spent a good deal of time photographing at Muley Point and made some really kickass pictures there. I have been back many times, including camping with my family. I made Chalk Moonrise on that first visit.

I made this photograph when we were living in Mesa. It was the second time I had worked with reflections of heavenly bodies. My friend, Thomas, said it reminded him of Lewis Baltz’s Fluorescent Tube from the Nevada Portfolio. I like the comparison. I like the strangeness of not knowing what one is looking at. I think the title helps one along, but I am happy for it to live in the mind of the viewer as a strange symbol, or a magical fluorescent tube.

The fuzziness of the moon in this picture is due to the fact that clouds were passing in front of the moon as it was rising. In fact, I awoke in the middle of the night to rain falling on me through the mesh roof of my tent. I quickly got up and considered packing my equipment but decided to wrap my raincoat around the camera instead and hope these were only passing showers. I am glad I did. This was my only chance at getting this photograph as the moon would be too close to the sun the next night and we were moving from Montana the next week. I had wanted to photograph in this spot for some time, but it had taken me a while to track down the person who owned the land and get their permission to camp there and make a picture. Thanks again to Kent Hanawalt at Ellison Ranch. I sent them a print as thanks.

Feature Image: The Big Dipper (Phad and Merak Replaced by Flashlights), Saratoga, Wyoming © David Shannon-Lier