Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson: Musings on Photography

julius motal the phoblographer earthrise tyson

“Earthrise” was taken by NASA astronaut William Anders during Apollo 8 in 1968.

When I originally set out to interview Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, I sought his commentary on the Blue Marble photograph taken during Apollo 17 in 1972. I was putting together a retrospective on the image, and after having spoken with Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt and CSA astronaut Col. Chris Hadfield, I thought that Dr. Tyson could provide great commentary given his status as an astrophysicist and tenure as the director of the Hayden Planetarium. The piece, however, went to press before I secured the interview with him, so the Blue Marble was a very brief jumping off point into a conversation far more insightful than anything I could have anticipated.

This is one of the longest interviews we’ve done, so settle in with a hot cup of coffee (or tea) and enjoy.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited and condensed.

Phoblographer: So what went through your mind when you saw that photo [Blue Marble] for the first time?

Dr. Tyson: Well, it was nowhere near as impactful to me as the Apollo 8 earthrise photo, so I didn’t have any stunning moment because that’s just of Earth. The Apollo 8 had the moon in the foreground Earth in the background going through phases, and that was sort of a more stunning juxtaposition of the cosmos with our home planet than the Apollo 17 image does. What distinguishes the Apollo 17 image is that it’s a full Earth, and it’s very hard to get a full Earth for various reasons. You have satellite images of the Earth and the image of the Earth will be round, but it won’t be the full Earth. Because if you take a picture of the Earth and you’re close to Earth, if you do the ray tracing on that, you would notice that you’re not getting the entire half of the Earth that’s actually facing you. You’re getting a circle where your sight lines sort of hit the tangent around the ball and that tangent point is not the full 180-degree half of the Earth. So here’s the problem, full Earth on the way to the moon means the side of the moon facing Earth is dark. But all the Apollo missions landed in light, so Apollo 17 was the longest mission of the group, of the six landings, and it had the benefit of leaving at a time where it could look back and see a full Earth. So, no other Apollo mission has a full Earth, so that’s what renders that photo unique. I was delighted that it had Africa right in the middle as the origin of our species right there in the continent. So I probably put more meaning on that fact than others who just saw it as the Earth. It’s still the image people use if they want to show the full Earth.

Phoblographer: Now do you practice photography at all?

Dr. Tyson: I did when I was a kid, and I still have a very deep respect and appreciation for it. And I wish I was strong enough to still carry around a real camera, but I, like everyone else has, resorted to my iPhone.

“You have satellite images of the Earth and the image of the Earth will be round, but it won’t be the full Earth. Because if you take a picture of the Earth and you’re close to Earth, if you do the ray tracing on that, you would notice that you’re not getting the entire half of the Earth that’s actually facing you. You’re getting a circle where your sight lines sort of hit the tangent around the ball and that tangent point is not the full 180-degree half of the Earth.” 

Phoblographer: Completely respectable.

Dr. Tyson (laughter): But anytime I look through a camera lens, I’m thinking like I was doing it as I did long ago. The field has always attracted me.

Phoblographer: And do you remember what your first camera was?

Dr. Tyson: Yes, it was a Pentax SP 500.

Phoblographer: So, barring the earthrise photograph, which was more impactful for you, what are some of your other favorite space photographs either taken by astronauts, the Hubble or any other satellite?

Dr. Tyson: I like the panoramas that the Mars rovers are taking of Mars, the 180-degree or 360-degree panoramas. It has the capacity to do that because you want to know what it’s like to be there. And if you’re looking out in one direction, that’s not the feeling of being there. So I’ve always enjoyed the foresight that the rover designers had- with which they’ve designed the rovers to send back a panorama. I also liked–I like vistas that you can’t just imagine what it would be- actually have to be there. For example, another image from Mars is an eclipse of the sun by one of the Mars moons. I think it’s Phobos. Goes in front of the sun. And you noticed that Phobos is not round like the moon is. It’s actually more like an Idaho potato. So you see this craggy rock moving across the surface of the Sun. So these are capturing moments in time and in place that are- have some, I don’t want to call them unique, but they’re special in the sense that they don’t happen all the time. And if you look at Pulitzer Prize photos, they tend to be photos that, capturing scenes that are uncommon. And not just a scene that’s beautiful. And because there’s no shortage of beautiful images in the world. Anyone with a good eye and confronted with a beautiful landscape or a beautiful flower. We got that. So just give me something–so one of my own recent photos, recent in the last ten years, is of Manhattanhenge.

Phoblographer: Oh, right, where the sun descends perfectly-

Dr. Tyson: -on the Manhattan grid. I first wrote about that in 1996, but my first published photo of it was not until 2002. Because it only happens twice a year, and it has to be clear on the horizon. For that horizon, it’s over New Jersey, and New Jersey’s where we get all of our weather, our summer storms. So, if you’re not clear straight to the horizon, it doesn’t work. So I published that in an issue of Natural History magazine, and thenceforth people have been asking for when it happens each year. And now, thousands of people line the streets to photograph this event, and so that was a case where one of my photos helped to start a movement. And the word Manhattanhenge, as of this year, has just been added to the Oxford English Dictionary. So that is a rare moment. Again, it happens every year. You got to be there. And you got to know how to take the picture.

I knew to close down, so that the aperture would allow a more spikey effect of the sun’s rays, to add a little punch to the sun being very low on the horizon. And what’s interesting, many people bring zoom lenses, and they zoom into the sun. It’s like, no, no. The whole point of this is that the sunset is framed by these huge structures of steel and glass, and that is the Manhattanhenge experience, like Stonehenge. If you’re just going to zoom in, who cares? That’s the sun on the horizon. That happens everyday. You got to pull back out, and have the street reach a vanishing point at the sun. And there’s the sun, when perfectly aligned, sparkling- illuminating both the north and south sides of the street. So, that was part of a special issue of Natural History magazine called “City of Stars” which featured my photograph of various places around the city that were- places around the city that highlight, either on purpose or by accident, the universe in some way or another. So for example, there’s the famous statue- art deco statue of Atlas outside of Rockefeller Center, and there’s this yoke across his back, which has the symbols of the planets, an indication by the sculptor that he’s carrying the whole universe there. And you look at the symbols, and there’s the symbol for Earth- Mercury, Venus, and Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. And there’s no Pluto because, and you learn the sculpture was designed- the sculpture was designed before Pluto was discovered itself in 1930.

So little things like that. My photo essays in this whole volume, and that’s sort of my last foray into this. But you know, the universe has been distracting for me since then.

Phoblographer: Yeah, what’s your favorite place to go in the city to capture these types of images?

Dr. Tyson: I like any juxtaposition of the city and the sky, no matter how, when and where it occurs. So- because I’m an urban astrophysicist, and so to me, so my favorite I would say is Central Park at dusk because then you have nature, the grass and trees; you have civilization, the silhouettes of the cityscape; and the universe forming the backdrop to it all. That to me is a beautiful serene moment.

Phoblographer: I can only imagine. Now, with these juxtapositions you talk about, do you actively seek these out or do you find yourself in these situations?

Dr. Tyson: No, in my day, I would chase them down. For that very first Manhattanhenge, I planned that to the second. But the other things, just if I see them, I would pause, and I’ll be late for my appointment because I’m going to capture it.

Phoblographer: Completely understandable. Now, Manhattanhenge, was that a term that you coined?

Dr. Tyson: Yeah.

Phoblographer: Now, do you remember what you were taking the photo with?

Dr. Tyson: Yeah, that one was a- so, that very first photo, the first one record, was a- that was a digital camera, but I had control- it was a very early digital camera, but I had control of the f-stop, and I took it down to f16, f32, somewhere around there. And, of course, if you were in broad daylight. When you can control that, you can also control the ISO, so you, I just made sure I had enough sensitivity, so that when I close down that far I can still see the foreground. I didn’t completely silhouette the buildings. So the buildings, there’s still some detail in them. You can see the windows and you can see structures. So, the framing does not compete with the sun, but it’s not completely obliterated by the silhouette shot that so many people I think have overused in the history of photography. My original camera was a Sony with a Zeiss lens. It was a small- it was not a big old- I mean it was a tourist camera. I don’t want to overstate what I was using. But it was Zeiss optic.

Phoblographer: You were talking briefly before about Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs, the moments that they capture, what are some of the photographs that you hold in high regard? Impacted you in any way?

Dr. Tyson: Sure, the photo that I remember. I mean, I hate to sound just so like everybody else, but I’m going to name some obvious photos. Of course, the one during the Tet Offensive in 1968 where the fellow has shot guy in the head. If you look carefully at the photo, the right side of the man’s face is a slightly different expression from the left side of his face, and the bullet entered the right side of his head. That’s A. B: The guy’s finger has already pulled the trigger because you can see the finger is fully pulled on the little, the whatever the word is for that. So the bullet has already entered this person’s head, and he’s reacting, you know your skin reacts, you’ve been touched on that side of your head initially, but then it goes into your brain. So just, the biophysiology of that image on top of what the hell was going on at the time to me- because it’s not just someone shooting a gun, we got pictures of that. It’s not just someone dying. It’s the moment where all of those are captured in the same image that, for me, was quite moving.

Another, again from that era was the 8 or 9-year-old girl who had been napalmed, running away towards the camera from the village that had just been napalmed. I write about this, it’s not published yet, but I have a book coming out where I reference that photograph. To me, it was a child running from a burning village, and it had the kind of abstraction that an American typically has when you see pictures from foreign countries.

It was real because you knew it was real, but it was still over there. And my daughter is 17. One day, one day, okay, she came running out of the bathroom out of the shower because there was no towel in the shower. She had to run to where the towels were. So she came running across the living room with no clothes on and I said, “Holy shit.” I mean, we give birth to this child, right? So, no time before then. Not when she’s five. I’m changing diapers when she’s 1 and 2. Not when she’s 5. Not when she’s 7. When she was like 9, and at that instant, that photo came into my head, and then I went to check to see how old that girl was, and she was like 8, 8 or 9 something. She was the same age. So, here was this photo asserting itself in my moment. I didn’t summon up the photo actively. It reemerged on its own and matched these scenes in my head and in my emotion. Since then, the photo has been that much deeper for me because then, now, it’s not just some child in another country, it’s my child. It could be my child, and that made the photo so much more personal to me. I’m talking just a few years ago. I’m not talking about 20 years ago because that photo is from the ‘60s, right?

Phoblographer: 1972?

Dr. Tyson: Oh, it’s that late? Man, we were still doing that shit in ’72. Okay, so the Tet Offensive one is ’68, with the guy getting shot in the head. So, that would have been February, right, 1968. So, that rose up in my head just for that reason, all by itself. And it hurt me now more. As devastating as that photo was, it became personal in that moment.

So another photo. I recently, weeks ago, gave a talk at Kent State University, and there’s the grassy area and the pavement where one of the students fell dead. And there’s the photo of the woman kneeling down screaming as her friend lays there bleeding to death from the Kent State shootings. So again, that picture surely is indelible in surely anyone’s mind, but to then be there on location. And then, once again, the picture just rises up. And that was another photo.

On the more peaceful side of things, I go with that woman who was the cover of National Geographic. Again I’m very populous now. I’m just saying all the photos everyone else likes, but for me, I want to be able to look into a person’s eyes, and go into their head, and just imagine what they’re thinking. Not all photographs allow you to do that. Not all give you that latitude. And that photo did. And had she been smiling, it would be completely different. If she was smiling, ah she’s just a happy person. If she was sad, you’d say, “Oh this sad person.” But she’s neither. And that gives you room to wonder if there’s something about to make her sad or about to make her happy, or whether there’s some other thought she’s having. And in that way, you personalize the subject matter. And I think any good art does that.

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