On Sept. 5, Nia Imara ’03, assistant professor of astronomy at the University of California, Santa Cruz, delivered her talk “The Power of Pictures,” at the Community Foundation Theater in Gund Gallery. The Kenyon alumna described to a rapt audience the subtle ways that images engage with the imaginations of their viewers. Her talk marked the beginning of a week-long residency here as part of Kenyon’s Science and Nature Writing Initiative, a collaboration between Kenyon College and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation which aims to bring scholars practicing science writing to campus.
An astronomer by training, Imara began by showcasing the recent images of space captured by the James Webb Space Telescope. Also a painter, she brought not only a scientist’s expertise but an artist’s sensibility to the viewing. Images of stars rendered in unbelievably vibrant color filled Imara’s slides, allowing those in the audience to bask in the beauty of space. During the Q&A session following the talk, she had the opportunity to explain what such images of space really mean.
The James Webb Space Telescope picks up infrared light, a range of light not visible to the human eye. In order to publish images that would be useful for the public, Imara explained, scientists had to decide how to represent the data in a form that we could actually understand; this meant translating those data into visible light — color.
This scientific necessity brought the telescope’s data — perhaps unexpectedly for non-scientists — into the language of art. It was through this lens that Imara then explored the history and thematic implications of image-making. Beginning with daguerreotypes — the first widely used picture-taking process, named for its inventor, Louis Daguerre — Imara tracked the development of a form of image that was cheap and thus very popular. Its connections to our image-making practices today are clear: When able to produce an abstracted view of ourselves, we experience a deep need to see ourselves that way, to see ourselves at all. Most, if not all, of the daguerreotypes Imara displayed in her slides were portraits of people.
As frequent consumers of images, we are already familiar with their ability to make us feel something. Looking at an image from the James Webb Space Telescope may make us feel small, while looking into the eyes of a 19th-century daguerreotype subject may create both a sense of estrangement and camaraderie across time. We generally consider being moved by pictures a positive experience; even if we feel something negative like sadness or pity, there is the sense of having experienced something sacred, simply by being moved at all. Through diving deeper into the history of the image, however, Imara forced us to consider the influences working beneath that sacred experience.
The early history of pictures is entangled with racism. Imara displayed pictures of Black people that I recognized immediately: portraits of Frederick Douglass; pictures associated with the development of eugenics. She used these to illustrate how images can communicate either affirming or damaging sentiments. A photo representing the eugenics ideology — a simple portrait of a Black man — was used to convince people that Black people were inherently inferior. On the other side of that process sat Douglass, quite concerned with the role of image-making in the fight against slavery. He sat for many portraits over his lifetime, which were, Imara explained, carefully staged to create a counter-narrative to the perceived inferiority of Black people. Working as an abolitionist during the age of the popular and cheap daguerreotype, Douglass knew well that the influence of images was, one way or another, an invaluable tool.
Imara’s curious status as both scientist and artist all but necessitated an address of the age-old academic question: Where, if at all, do science and art intersect? Bypassing boilerplate references to the presence of creativity in both fields, Imara made a more challenging suggestion: The intersection is simply her. As a practitioner in both fields, she has clearly brought both to bear in her work. She showed us her own art, much of which was oil-on-canvas portraits of Black people emerging from backgrounds so colorful and textured as to recall the images of the cosmos she had just shown us. These portraits wore proudly the responsibility of visual representation for which she had just finished making a case. In showing the results of how astronomy informed her visual art, Imara impressed upon her audience their own capacity for engaging with that responsibility.