The Celestographs: August Strindberg’s Alchemical Shots of the Night Sky

August Strindberg, "Celestograph XII" (1893-94)
August Strindberg, “Celestograph XII” (1893-94) (all images courtesy National Library of Sweden)

In the 1890s, Swedish playwright August Strindberg photographed the night sky without a camera or even a lens. These “Celestographs,” as he called them, were both a folly and an innovative work of experimental art. The National Library of Sweden has recently shared a selection of these photographs online, displaying the gritty textures of the strange images.

Sadly, the plates that Strindberg set out under the stars have been lost, but these well-worn prints remain. While Strindberg is celebrated for his dozens of modernist plays and other works of naturalist fiction, when he hit a creative block he turned to visual art. A friend of Edvard Munch, Strindberg produced paintings that are physical, almost aggressive, canvases marred with paint, jabbed and slashed with the palette knife and brush. His photographs are hands-off. As Douglas Feuk wrote in 2001 for Cabinet magazine:

“Strindberg distrusted camera lenses, since he considered them to give a distorted representation of reality. Over the years he built several simple lens-less cameras made from cigar boxes or similar containers with a cardboard front in which he had used a needle to prick a minute hole. But the celestographs were produced by an even more direct method using neither lens nor camera. The experiments involved quite simply placing his photographic plates on a window sill or perhaps directly on the ground (sometimes, he tells us, already lying in the developing bath) and letting them be exposed to the starry sky.”

August Strindberg in 1897 (Nordic Museum, via Wikimedia)
August Strindberg in 1897 (Nordic Museum, via Wikimedia)

The celestographs include a letter in French — perhaps addressed to the respected French astronomer Camille Flammarion with whom he shared his work — emphasizing he created them “sans appareil ni lentille” — without a camera or lens. The series shared by the National Library of Sweden was made in the winter of 1893 to 1894 in Dornbach, Austria. The photographs do have a striking resemblance, even in their tattered glory, to later telescope images of space, but of course, they can’t be showing the stars. It’s likely it was instead dust in the air or just the chemical reactions of the plates that resulted in the images.

Strindberg was interested in chemistry and alchemy, so he couldn’t have been unaware of this process. Yet he also believed there could be an objective view of nature involving its processes. The celestographs are both a representation of the photograph’s reaction to the universe, and the universe itself throwing its debris and specks of light into the results. It’s an early take on the embrace of chance that would be celebrated by Surrealists in the next century, and the laissez-faire photograms utilized by Man Ray and Imogen Cunningham.

Later Strindberg would try out building “Wunderkamera” to take life-size photographs, and in his later years documented the clouds. Recently his art has gotten some attention with August Strindberg: Painter, Photographer, Writer at the Tate Modern in 2005 and the inclusion of the celestographs in After Nature at the New Museum in 2008. Now through this online resource there is another portal into his perception of art as a collaborative tool with the vast universe.

August Strindberg, "Celestograph XVI" (1893-94)
August Strindberg, “Celestograph XVI” (1893-94)
August Strindberg, "Celestograph VII" (1893-94)
August Strindberg, “Celestograph VII” (1893-94)
August Strindberg, back of "Celestograph VII" (1893-94)
August Strindberg, back of “Celestograph VII” (1893-94), text says “stars” in Swedish and French
August Strindberg, "Celestograph XV" (1893-94)
August Strindberg, “Celestograph XV” (1893-94)
August Strindberg, "Celestograph XIII" (1893-94)
August Strindberg, “Celestograph XIII” (1893-94)
August Strindberg, back of "Celestograph VIII" (1893-94)
August Strindberg, back of “Celestograph VIII” (1893-94), text reads “stars” in Swedish and “Stars: the Orion region” in French

View more of August Strindberg’s “Celestographs” on the National Library of Sweden’s Flickr.

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