Simon Starling Black Drop , 2012

Simon Starling 'Black Drop' 2012
Materials: 35 mm B&W film with sound transferred to HD
Dimensions/duration: Projected dimensions variable/duration 27 min 42 sec


Produced in association with Modern Art, Oxford and the Radcliffe Observatory, Oxford, the film Black Drop unfolds in a 35mm editing suite as an editor tries to bring structure and understanding to a varied array of material including: footage made on location in Hawaii and Tahiti on the occasion of the June 2012 transit of Venus, archive material, and ultimately footage of himself editing. As the editor cuts and splices the complex narrative unfolds. The film tells the story of the relationship between astronomy, photography and the beginnings of moving image technology. Predicated on the idea that the 2012 transit may be the last to be recorded on celluloid (the next transit will occur in 2117), Black Drop tracks the development of the French astronomer, Jules Janssen’s innovative photographic revolver – a device that was designed to counter human error in timing the crucial moments of Venus’ contact with the edge of the sun, and was influential in the development of Etienne Jules Marey’s photographic rifle and the Lumiére Brother’s cinematograph.

A full transcript for 'Black Drop' as narrated by Peter Capaldi, can be found below.
Installation view, Radcliffe Observatory, Oxford
Installation view, Radcliffe Observatory, Oxford
'Black Drop' film still
'Black Drop' film still
Installation view, Radcliffe Observatory, Oxford
Installation view, Radcliffe Observatory, Oxford
The enthusiastic attempts in 1874 and 1882 to use observations of the transit of Venus across the sun to refine the measurement of the mean Earth–Sun distance, the so-called ‘astronomical unit’, are perhaps best known for the international nature of this vast collaborative undertaking and in turn for their inaccuracies and ultimate failure. What is however less well known is that cinema, in part, is the illegitimate child of those 19th century scientific exertions.

For many, Etienne Jules Marey’s invention of the photographic rifle marks a key generative moment in the evolution of cinema. However Marey’s device was itself a direct descendent of the revolver photographique, a machine developed in 1874 by his colleague, the celebrated and highly innovative French astronomer Pierre Cesar Jules Janssen. It was hoped that this controversial device that combined chronometry and photography would allow for analytical observations without human error, based on repeated exposures made of the transit in geographically remote locations around the globe.

While the 1874 transit, itself a quintessential, if reductive, cinematic experience - a shifty planetary protagonist projected by a vast bulb-like sun onto the imaginations of an earth bound audience - may not have greatly enhanced our understanding of the solar-system, it could certainly be argued that Janssen’s innovative approach to chronophotography had a considerable impact on the future of cinema.

Jules Janssen’s extraordinary life seems to have been hard-wired into the evolution of photography throughout the 19th century. His relationship to the medium can be tracked to its very beginnings when in 1840, just one year after the official unveiling of Joseph Nicephore Nièpce and Louis Daguerre’s method of capturing images in a camera obscura, a 16 year old Janssen was photographed for the first time. Towards the end his life, Janssen, who had turned to photography repeatedly throughout his career, again found himself at the cutting edge of technological developments, when, in 1895, he was filmed arriving at that years conference of the Society of French Photographers. Made in Lyon by Louis Lumière on the morning of the 15th of June as the conference delegates arrived by riverboat, the film, that was screened for the first time that very afternoon, shows a stream of well-dressed and high spirited people walking down the gang-plank onto the quay. Fittingly perhaps the first man off the boat is Janssen.
'Jules Janssen's sketch of the black drop effect, an optical phenomenon visible during a transit of Venus across the sun.'
'Jules Janssen's sketch of the black drop effect, an optical phenomenon visible during a transit of Venus across the sun.'
The history of astronomical photography has its roots, perhaps unsurprisingly, in attempts to fix images of our closest celestial neighbour, the moon, and indeed reached a certain technological crossroads just prior to the ‘conquest’ in 1969 of that previously inaccessible poem. Photographic images of the moon are, it is said, almost as old as photography itself. The first of these came and went, fleetingly, unfixed, while their more durable successors, the so called ‘Harvard Daguerreotypes’ made by the astronomer William Cranch Bond and the pioneering photographer John Adams Whipple on the–then–largest telescope in North America, confounded and amazed visitors to the 1851 Great Exhibition in London.

Some two decades later the engineer–turned–astronomer James Nasmyth, aided and abetted by his collaborator James Carpenter, developed a hybrid photographic (and indeed scientific) process to produce a series of photographic illustrations for their 1874 book The Moon Considered as a Planet, a World and a Satellite. Without access to equipment capable of photographing their inaccessible subject in detail, Nasmyth and Carpenter painstakingly produced drawings based on their own protracted observations through a telescope. These chalk and graphite drawings, made on grey paper, provided the necessary information for the creation of a subsequent series of detailed three-dimensional plaster models that Nasmyth and Carpenter were then able to photograph (in sunlight) and subsequently reproduce as ‘scientific illustrations’. In producing these third-hand images of the moon, Nasmyth and Carpenter emphatically misread the moon’s topography, understanding its impact craters, for example, to be the result of volcanic activity and even attempting to force-home their argument with comparative models of the earth bound volcano Vesuvius.

It was to the same heavily cratered topography that NASA’s five unmanned Lunar Orbiters turned their attentions in the years prior to the first moon landing in 1969. In somewhat of a contemporary reworking of Nasmyth and Carpenter’s hybrid process, NASA’s proto-digital photographic technology, initially involved the automated on-board ‘dry-processing’ of conventional black and white film. These negatives, later lost when the Orbiters were ditched on the lunar surface, were then scanned and transmitted to earth as video signals. Frequently plagued by extraneous noise and transmission failures, the resulting images were cobbled together by earthbound technicians from these incoming digital fragments. Despite their supposed empirical credentials, the orbiter’s clearly reveal the aesthetic and subjective preconditions of their making.

While NASA’s Orbiters scanned the lunar surface for suitable landing sites, the Lunar Roving Vehicles or LRV’s, which would eventually carry the astronauts across the moon’s surface, were being tested on the rugged moon-like slopes of Mauna Kea, a 4200 metre high dormant volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island. It is here, under some of the clearest skies found anywhere on earth, that astronomical photography will take its next leap forward when the world largest digital camera, Pan Starrs, takes up residence on the summit. The camera’s vast and highly sensitive sensor-array will, track the sky in search of movement and change, producing so much data in the process that only what changes from night to night will be retained, the rest – like the Orbiter’s negatives, will be ditched.

One might suppose that the relationship between astronomy and moving image technology began with the cosmic shenanigans played out in the silent films of George Méliès and yet celestial cinema of sorts seems to be almost as old as astronomy. Méliès 1907 film The Eclipse, in which a rogue-faced moon momentarily obscures an anxious looking sun, was in fact pre-empted some 360 years earlier by the ‘projection’ of just such a solar eclipse in 1544. As a contemporary woodblock print testifies, these observations of an impossibly bright sun being covered by a seemingly straight-faced moon, were made possible through the use of a camera obscura that projected a viewable, if inverted, image of this rare event into a darkened chamber. In 1613 this nascent cinematographic technology, augmented by the addition of telescope lenses, allowed the Jesuit Christoph Scheiner to carefully transcribe the changing shape of sunspots onto a paper screen. And it was just such a device that, in 1639, afforded Jeremiah Horrocks and his colleague William Crabtree the possibility of making and recording the first scientific observations of a transit of Venus across the sun.
Born in Toxteth near Liverpool in 1619 and educated from the age of 13 at Emmanuel Collage, Cambridge, Jeremiah Horrocks dedicated much of his short life (he died at the age of 22) to the study of astronomy and mathematics, achieving hugely innovative work in these complimentary disciplines, at a time when there was very little distinction made between astronomy and astrology. Taking as his starting point the ground-breaking work of Johannes Kepler, Horrocks was the first astronomer to accurately establish that ‘conjunctions’ of Venus and the sun could be viewed from earth in pairs 8 years apart – Kepler’s prediction of the 1631 transit being followed by the transit Horrocks himself predicted and witnessed in 1639. It would then be over 120 years before the next opportunity to observe a Venus transit.

If it can be claimed that Jules Janssen’s photographic revolver was indeed a forerunner of the cinematograph, then by extension it might be suggested that the birthplace of cinema was not the gates of a factory in Lyon, but rather a black sand beach at the northern-most tip of the South Pacific island of Tahiti. For it was here at Point Venus on June the 3rd 1769 that Captain James Cook and his ships astronomer Charles Green, witnessed and carefully recorded the distorting effects of the mysterious ‘black drop’ on the transit of Venus.

Despite the failure of the 1761 transit observations at the Cape of Good Hope and St. Helena, and still adhering to the calculation method laid out by Edmond Halley that so sabotaged these observations, in 1769 the British sent three teams to Norway, Canada and Tahiti to observe and record Venus’s passage across the face of the sun. Halley’s method, which captured the imaginations of astronomers when it was published in 1716, combined simple Euclidean triangulations with precise observations of the contact of Venus with the limb (or edge) of the sun and required that observations be made from geographically remote and precisely plotted locations across the globe.
It would be an overstatement to say that Captain Cooks voyage to Tahiti, an island which had been serendipitously ‘discovered’ in 1767 by Captain Samuel Wallis, was a thinly veiled land grab disguised as a scientific expedition, but there is little doubt that it’s astronomical aspirations were perceived by the British as a way to avoid upsetting the Dutch, the French and the Spanish who already had interests in that part of the world. As well as instructions for the observation of the transit of Venus from the Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne, Cook carried a sealed envelope that contained instructions for the continuation of the voyage in search of the fabled ‘Unknown South Land’ – Terra Australis Incognita.

Having sent observation teams to the nearby island of Moorea and eastern Tahiti, both Cook and Green observed the transit from the safety of Fort Venus. Despite perfect weather conditions and the use of identical telescopes built by James Short, the finest telescope builder of his generation, and a carefully calibrated regulator clock, both men frustratingly recorded very different timings for the crucial moments of contact.
'Black Drop' film still
'Black Drop' film still
Drawings by Cook and Green published in 1771 suggest the difficulties of the method in relation to the reality of the event – accurate timing was all but impossible as the silhouetted Venus, appeared to distort and elongate on contact with the limb of the sun. Their instinct to record moment by moment, frame by frame, the evolution of the ‘black drop’ effect, that so hampered their precise observations, was no doubt crucial to Jules Janssen’s decision over a century later to develop his chronophotographic device that was similarly aimed at cutting the duration of the problematic contacts into precisely timed single images.

While precursors to the photographic revolver, such as the pistolgraph of Thomas Skaife, allowed for a small number of images to be made on the same plate, with its automated clockwork shutter Janssen’s revolver was the ‘Gatling gun’ of the photographic world. Despite the fact that the Maltese cross device (deployed here for the first time to move forward the photographic plate) later become a key component in the design of the Lumiére Brother’s cinematograph, Janssen’s intention was not to produce moving image per se but rather to subdivide the duration of the ingress and egress of Venus’ transit into tidy, carefully timed, slices. The hope being that a precise, objective and unflustered post-mortem analysis of these images might facilitate a more accurate assessment of the exact moment of contact, and in turn, a more precise calculation of the solar parallax.

While Janssen famously claimed that photographs would become ‘the retina of the scientist’, there were many who warned against cinematographic techniques, the most influential of whom was the philosopher and critic Henri Bergson who demanded that the scientific establishment set aside such strategies. Bergson argued that it was not only Venus’s form (plagued as it was by the black drop) that was elusive, but all forms: he suggested instead that there is no form, since form is immobile and reality is movement. What is real, he insisted, is the continual change of form: form being only a snapshot view of transition.

If the French remained sceptical of Janssen’s invention, the British under the leadership of the Astronomer Royal, George Airy, embraced the device that soon become known simply as the ‘Janssen’. After a Greenwich meeting with Janssen (who Airy claimed to have ‘not the least idea of mechanics’) in June 1873 and following some adjustments to the original design, Airy commissioned the celebrated London instrument maker, John Henry Dallmeyer to build no fewer than 6 ‘Janssens’ for use in India, Egypt, New Zealand, Kerguelen, Rodrigues and Hawaii. While it was clear that photography was not being deployed to replace observations of the transit by eye, much store was placed in its objective gaze.

In October 1874 after a narrow escape from two typhoons in the South China Sea, Janssen and his team reached Yokohama in Japan. As an insurance against the weather, one observation team settled in Kobe while Janssen travelled with 250 crates of instruments and equipment to Nagasaki in the west, where the weather was predicted to be better, and set up shop on a hilltop ‘well clear of the fumes from the town’. From here they accurately established their longitude and latitude - a crucial aspect of the calculation of the solar parallax. During the 6 hour-long transit, and despite hazy skies in Nagasaki, the French were able to observe and time the crucial contacts and record the event in over 80 photographs and a single ‘Janssen’ plate.
Venus Mirrors (05/06/12, Hawaii & Tahiti (Inverted)), 2012, 2 drilled 600mm telescope mirrors, stands, 179.7 x 66 x 56 cm / 70.7 x 26 x 22 in each (60 cm / 23.6 in diameter each), Edition of 5 + 1 AP
Venus Mirrors (05/06/12, Hawaii & Tahiti (Inverted)), 2012, 2 drilled 600mm telescope mirrors, stands, 179.7 x 66 x 56 cm / 70.7 x 26 x 22 in each (60 cm / 23.6 in diameter each), Edition of 5 + 1 AP
Installation view, Radcliffe Observatory, Oxford
Installation view, Radcliffe Observatory, Oxford
Across the Pacific in Hawaii, the British established observation stations at Honolulu, Kailua–Kona and Waimea Bay where Captain Cook had first made landfall in 1778. Under the command of George Lyon Tupman, a large enclosure was established on Royal land at Apua (now downtown Honolulu). Below 4 feet of light sandy soil lay a solid bed of coral on which the instruments could be securely installed. By October a well-equipped astronomical observatory was in place complete with a transit instrument, a photoheliograph to which the Janssen revolver would be attached, an altazimuth, two equatorial telescopes, several clocks and a platform for observing the transit of Venus model. The wooden huts installed at Apua provided some shelter but little respite from the penetrating heat and Tupman, finding the heat in the darkroom ‘intolerable’ finally installed an additional rush roof above the hut. After weeks of stormy weather that battered the makeshift observatory, the morning of transit day dawned fair. The notorious black drop proved insignificant as Venus remained perfectly circular and uniformly black as both Noble and Tupman recorded precisely the same time of 3 hours 35 minutes and 54 seconds for the critical internal contact. At the other stations in Kailua-Kona and Waimea Bay internal contact had been timed to within 5 seconds of the Honolulu figure. Less successful was the use of the ‘Janssen’ however. The telescope to which the device was attached was misaligned leaving half of Venus out of the image. At 5.18 pm the sun dropped into the sea while the transit was still in progress.

In November 1874, in the wake of the arrival of the British Transit of Venus expedition in Hawaii a monument was constructed to Captain James Cook on the rocky shore of Kealakekua Bay where the ‘great circumnavigator’ met his death on the 14th of February 1779. This traumatic event was reworked, retold and mythologised time and again in the decades that followed, generating scores of hugely popular third or forth-hand accounts, many of which where based on drawings by John Webber, the official artist on Cook’s third voyage, who was not even present at his Captain’s death. Having initially allowed himself to be greeted and treated as a god by the Polynesians, visual and literary accounts of his death, plagued as they are by the 18th century equivalents of ‘extraneous noise and transmission failures’, variously portray the by-then behaviourally unpredictable Captain, as a clumsy aggressor or a pacifist diplomat. The painted concrete monolith marking the site of the martyrdom of a great explorer or, as the backside of the now disfigured monument suggests, the death of Captain Crook.

On the 9th of May 1883, following an arduous journey (via the construction site of the Panama Canal) to Caroline Island in the Pacific, Janssen observed and photographed a total solar eclipse. Following a brief stay in Tahiti on his return, he stopped at Hawaii and spent a week making observations and measurements of the changes in sunlight that occurred when it had passed through the vapours escaping from the active Kilauea volcano.

Returning to Europe Janssen threw himself once again, at the age of 64, into perhaps his most epic adventure, the 18 year long battle to build a high altitude observatory on the 4810 metre high summit of Mont Blanc. Janssen was of course no stranger to epic adventure - in 1870 with Paris surrounded by the Prussian army, Janssen had escaped to the Mediterranean in the air balloon, ‘La Volta’, in order to study ‘the magnificent halo of light that surrounds the eclipsed sun’. The mountain top observatory was designed to minimise the effect of the earth’s atmosphere on his experimental observations. From his work fighting the effects of the black drop and in solar spectroscopy, Janssen had come to understand the importance of altitude to the future of astronomy. Made all the more extraordinary by the fact that the aging Janssen suffered from a limp and had to be carried to the summit on a “ladder chair”, the idea for the Mont Blanc observatory was revolutionary and far in advance of its time. Inaugurated in 1893, the prefabricated 7 metre high wooden structure, initially developed with the help of the engineer Gustave Eiffel, sat on the 12 metre thick ice that covers the summit.

As results from the transit observations started to trickle out in the years that followed, it soon became clear that the 1874 calculations were no more precise than those of the previous ‘non-photographic’ observations, the various revolvers and photoheliographs having produced very different and therefore incomparable images. In what amounted to an unravelling of many of the fundamentals of astronomy and a subsequent shift towards physics, the Sun it would seem remained resolutely un-photographable – its photographed size being unreliable as a source of accurate computations.

To this day, not one original Janssen plate of the 1874 transit of Venus has been located. The few plates that do exist record tests made prior to the actual transit. Perhaps tellingly, what has survived is a revolver plate made not in a ‘Janssen’ but of Janssen. Photographed on New Years Day 1884 by Etienne Jules Marey, on a close relative of Janssen’s own photographic revolver, its 21 images animate the astronomer theatrically smoking a cigarette while bizarrely sporting a Lawrence of Arabia-like headscarf.

Simon Starling

Black Drop/ Production Still (Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, June 2012), 2012/2013
Silver gelatin print
26.5 x 21.3 cm
10.4 x 8.4 in
Edition of 30 + 5 AP

Simon Starling

Black Drop: Ciné-Roman, 2013

Published by Humboldt Books & Modern Art Oxford
22.5 x 17.5 cm
208 pages
ISBN: 9788890841804
Available in The Modern Institute Online Shop

A Film by Simon Starling

Voice Peter Capaldi
Cinematography Christoph Manz
Camera Assistant, Berlin Josie Rücker
Sound recording Annette Ueberlein
Film editing Cristóvão A. dos Reis
Sound Jochen Jezussek
Text editing Emma Dean, Philip Starling
Casting Nina Gold Casting Ltd, London
Produced by Annette Ueberlein

Written with reference to texts by:
Michael Chauvin, Professor George Forbes, Tony Horwitz, Francoise Launay, Nick Lomb, Jessica Ratcliff, Birgit Schneider

Images courtesy of:
Science & Society Picture Library
Collège de France
Observatoire de Paris
Royal Astronomical Society
Science Photo Library
Cambridge University Library
Bibliothèque de L'Institute de France
Hulton Archive

Produced with the support of Modern Art Oxford and The University of Oxford

With thanks to:
Jan Bleicher, Paul Bonaventura, Henriette Bretton-Meyer, Alice Conconi, Mike Davies, Pierpaolo Falone, Christian Foghmar, Caris Gaertner (Multilogistics), Nina Gold, Andrew Hamilton, Alexander Ho, Uffe Holm, Casey Kaplan, Roland Lederer (Space Instruments, Berlin), John Mason (Big Island Film Office, Hawaii), Kevin McDonald, Maja McLaughlin, Tim Neuger, Franco Noero, Dawn Pamarang, Leah Pualaha (Bishops Museum),Burkard Riemschneider, Michael Stanley, Vincent Starling, Alice Starling, Toby Webster, Edmund Yamagata (Roberts Hawaii), Ranger Dean Gallagher (Volcano National Park), John (Kona Boys), Christoph, Stefan & Jörg (Arri Rental) Andreas, Lissy & Franziska (Arri Film & TV)

The transit of Venus footage included in Black Drop was filmed on the afternoon of the 5th of June 2012 at the summit of Maunea Kea, Hawaii using 35mm film stock exposed, like Janssen’s revolver plates, at 1 frame per second. With the next transit not due until 2117 and with film fast disappearing, it is likely that the 2012 transit will have been the last to be recorded using this fast disappearing technology.
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