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.”