Skip to main content
Ages 13+
Under 13
Abstract image with navy blue and gold coloring

August Strindberg Thought He’d Photographed the Universe (He Wasn't Far Off)


These odd photographic exercises remind us that size is relative and the universe can materialize itself even in a speck of dust.

At first glance, one senses but colored stains on a worn surface. In fact, they’re images considered by August Strindberg (1849-1912) as photographs of the cosmos, and made by himself. At the time of their “capture,” the Swedish playwright never imagined that what he’d captured was not what he’d intended, but it was what he ultimately desired. He sought to portray the universe, and he did.

In the Austrian town of Donarch during the winter of 1893-1894, Strindberg, an early antecedent of the Theatre of the Absurd, dedicated nights to photographic plates placed on the floor to capture the sky. An experimental exercise, Strindberg dispensed with any intermediary between the portrayed and the plate (no photographers, no lenses), in a technique that called celestography.

The forms in the resulting images invite one to think that they’re galaxies, nebulae, suns, and stars. At least that was what Strindberg believed they were at first. But when, shortly thereafter, he sent some of the images to the writer and astronomer Camille Flammarion, they were rejected outright, and Strindberg never received a reply. Flammarion’s reasoning: the photographs had not captured the night sky. They were but stains which had emerged on the photosensitive film, chemical stains of emulsions and environmental dust. It’s a coincidence which bears a magical lesson.

Time didn’t spare the images. The photographs have been further sullied over the years, by the hands that have touched them, with ink, and with grease. But the night skies they portray are still intact: for the cosmos is also here on Earth. It’s the Earth itself, and it’s the dust which made the images, as it is the emotion of the creator who contemplated them. This beautiful confusion is a narrative, even a portrait, of that impeccable relationship between the immeasurable and the minuscule. Strindberg’s celestographs, after all, were not a mistake.

Images: Public Domain

Related Articles