Ashes in the Night Sky




“Everything we see in the sky belongs to the past.”


-Timothy Ferris, Seeing in the Darkw



This project started one morning in 2002 while I was making pancakes. Some of the pancakes burned in such a way that they looked like moons with craters against the deep black of the griddle. I set a few of those pancakes aside and later brought them to my studio to scan on a flatbed scanner. With the scanner cover open and the contrast boosted, the resulting images of overcooked breakfast food actually did resemble our moon in the night sky.


I continued to experiment with the use of the scanner as a camera over the next few years. In the spring of 2004, when my father died and was cremated, I thought again of the night sky. I asked my mother if I could work with some of his ashes. She agreed.


My first attempts were awkward. I was uncomfortable handling my father’s remains, and I had little idea of what to create. While it was exciting to see that the scans of tiny pieces of my father’s ash looked remarkably like stars, these first attempts felt trivial to me, given the high emotional charge of the material I was working with. I needed more direction, more structure to support my visual decisions. I knew little about astronomy and so I went to the library, where I collected a stack of books—observing guides, college textbooks, celestial picture books—and brought them home.


Among the books was Alan Sandage and John Bedke’s massive two-volume set, The Carnegie Atlas of Galaxies. Within its pages, photographs of 1168 individual galaxies were presented in a classification system first devised by Edwin Hubble. Here, in addition to photographs of the popularly known spiral and whirlpool galaxies, were pictures of grainy, oddly shaped, diaphanous clouds. To me these strange formations looked less galactic and more like the hovering ectoplasms printed in 19th century spirit photographs. I was also struck by another quality of the galaxy photographs, each one beautiful in their quirky otherness: they looked like ashes! Or, rather, my father’s ashes looked like them.


Photographs of galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters in other astronomy books also resonated in me. On the one hand they were simply beautiful documents of astronomical phenomena. But they also conjured other feelings that weren’t explicitly related to their subjects. I knew by this point that I wanted my photographs to recall both ash and sky, and I began to use these documentary pictures as guides or templates to ground my formalistic choices. I would often work with one of these astronomical photographs by my side, replicating its composition by using my fingers and various sieves and screens to sift and drop the ashes on the scanner glass. The denser the accumulation of ashes, the brighter the image they recorded. Fine, dust-like particles often appeared as distant stars or gaseous clouds against the background’s inky blackness. I didn’t try to copy the astronomical photographs too faithfully; they served as starting points. I was more interested in the chance-determined relationships that developed from my inability to precisely control the fall of the ashes. It was in the translation from the document that fortuitous things happened.


My literature search also led me to the writing of Timothy Ferris. Through him, I came to appreciate the cosmological understanding many astronomers have. What at first might sound like romantic hooey about the interconnectivity of life on Earth and in the Universe is factually grounded in scientific reasoning.


I felt a kinship with the astronomers and began to observe similarities between their work and the work of photographers like myself. We share a recent history of working w/ optics,

we often work in the dark, and we continually make choices about what to include and reject from the fields of vision our optical devices offer. We work with light, and we work with the past. And often now we view our subject indirectly on a computer monitor rather than directly through a lens.


In time, my photographs began to refer to the astronomical pictures less directly. Using the computer, I selectively blurred some areas to alter depth relationships, and in others to create gaseous or nebulous regions in the picture. Inspired by the astronomers’ practice of printing images as negatives to access greater detail in the sky, I also printed some as negatives. These images reminded me that all of the pictures in my project had begun with the elemental particle of ash.


In one of my series, Night Skies, I worked with the idea of the sequence. Each sequence began with ashes spread on the scanner to simulate a star-laden sky. After viewing the first scanned image, I would respond to the arrangement, which was still on the scanner, then add more ashes and rescan. From one scan to the next, those areas of the composition where ash had accumulated increased in brightness, while other areas maintained their original density. I continued adding ashes in this way, producing up to 20 consecutive scans per sequence. This process gave me many files to work with, each one representing a subtle or, in some cases, a dramatic shift from the previous arrangement, thus suggesting time passage.


My realization along the way that gravity—the same force that governs the path and interaction of all objects in the universe—dictated, at least in part, the placement of every particle of ash on the scanner inspired another group of pictures. In this series, I spread the ashes more forcibly and often included larger pieces to capture the explosive, gravitationally related energy evident in many astronomical photographs.


I also scanned individual fragments of cremated bone. When imaged, the respective fragment (each less than an inch in length) revealed a particular coloration and architecture depending on the bone’s mineral content, the temperature of the fire, and the crematorium’s grinding of the skeletal remains. Whereas the other photographs suggested nebulae, constellations, and galaxies, these photographs presented the fragment in a straightforward manner, much like a forensic or archeological document.


In the beginning, this project driven by the desire to make images in the shadow of my father’s death. I wanted to take creative advantage of the emotional jolt his absence caused. As that grief subsided, however, the acknowledgement of my own aging and inevitable death maintained my interest in the confluence of ashes and sky.


I’ve read that on a clear night the unaided eye can see five planets, ten thousand stars in the Milky Way, and the glow of three other galaxies. That over one hundred times more stars fill the sky than sand grains on all the beaches of our world. That the nitrogen atoms we breathe on Earth are identical to the nitrogen atoms on Mars. That the laws of physics really are universal. Intellectually I know all this and yet, in the everyday, my world is small and my cosmology is shaky. Often, I’m as oblivious to the brilliance of the night sky as I am to those I love. The phase of the moon, the paths of the stars and planets, they move above me unnoticed. And too often, like those I love, I take for granted the sun’s warmth and radiance until it’s gone, its light faded to darkness.


-Bill McDowell

Fragment 1-09-08-6 verso, 2008
Fragment 1-11-08-11, 2008
Fragment 6-2-8. 2008
Fragment 6-3-11-1. 2011. Archival Pigment Print. 36" X 44".
Fragment 2 verso, 2008
Fragment 1-11-08-3, 2008
Fragment 6-3-16. 2008/2011. Archival Pigment Print. 36" X 44".
Fragment 1-09-08-6, 2008
Fragment 1-10-08-11, 2008
Fragment 1-10-08-12
Fragment 6-3-2, 2008
Fragment 6-2-11 5. 2011. Archival Pigment Print. 36" X 44".
Fragment 6-3-16 verso, 2008
Fragment 6-3-10, 2008
Fragment 6-3-37 verso, 2008
Fragment 6-3-11-2. 2011. Archival Pigment Print. 36" X 44".
Fragment 6-3-2 verso, 2008
Fragment 1-11-08-11, 2008
Fragment 6-2-4 verso, 2008
Fragment 6-2-11-2. 2011. Archival Pigment Print. 36" X 44".
Fragment 6-3-11-9. 2011. Archival Pigment Print. 36" X 44".
Fragment 1-09-08 8 verso. 2008/2011. Archival Pigment Print. 36" X 44".
Fragment 6-2-22 verso. Archival Pigment Print. 36" X 44".
Fragment 6-3-39 verso. 2008/2011. Archival Pigment Print. 36" X 44".