Selections from Trevor Paglen’s The Last Pictures: Earthrise photographed by astronaut William Anders, 1968; HeLa cells, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA
The history of photography is no stranger to stories of hidden cachets of photographic negatives discovered haphazardly. Think of the discovery by a real estate agent in Chicago of 100,000 negatives taken by a previously unknown artist, a nanny-cum-street photographer named Vivian Maier whose work is now the subject of much attention and an upcoming documentary.
Artist and photographer Trevor Paglen’s recent project The Last Pictures might be conjuring a bit of the folklore and fanfare true to photography’s past, while at the same time looking to its future. Paglen, an artist and writer who lives in New York, chose a group of 100 photographs and last year, with the help of the public art organization Creative Time, and launched them into space. The idea came up years ago, when Paglen who often photographs the sky—specifically long-exposure photographs centered on satellites that orbit the Earth—began to think about the numbers of dead spacecraft locked in celestial orbit. In some ways, these hunks of metal now upwards of 800 spacecraft might be the longest-lasting artifacts of human civilization. Paglen said, “I started thinking about them not just as spacecraft, but as monuments to the historical moment they emerged from. When we’re gone, they’ll still remain.”
Carl Sagan with the help of NASA embarked on a similar mission in 1977. Known as the Voyager Golden Record, Sagan and his associates at Cornell assembled a collection of images and sounds (both naturally occurring and language-based, such as 55 different ways to say hello), put them on a record, and launched it into space with the hope of explaining something about human life to extraterrestrials. Something about Voyager and Paglen’s project also suggests the meticulous grouping of visual image clusters edited by Aby Warburg for his now legendary Mnemosyne Atlas in the 1920s.
As a visual record, Paglen’s The Last Pictures is something of a diary of our times. The 100 images Paglen chose, or in some cases commissioned, were chosen through a lengthy process of investigation, research, and interviews with scientists, artists, and philosophers. The group was then etched onto one 5-inch ultra-archival silicon disc stored inside a gold-plated aluminum shell and launched into deep space by the EchoStar XVI communications satellite in 2012. The project opens up questions about the meaning of the photograph divorced from its context. But as an act of preservation, it is both generous and hopeful.
Yet The Last Pictures is also based in contradiction. In Paglen’s introduction to the accompanying publication, he points out that on average, a person living in a city sees over 5,000 images a day. Yet most of these images are fleeting and will be lost as the devices that currently cast them across the world at hyperspeed become obsolete. The Last Pictures asks the inevitable question: Apart from the ecological imprint of human activity on this planet, how will we be remembered? And by whom? Paglen doesn’t dare wager that it will ever happen, but as a thought experiment, The Last Pictures is a curious collection of what we look like at the present moment.