Above Atlas photographique de la Lune by Maurice Loewy and Pierre Henri Puiseux, 1894-1910. (Courtesy of MAPP Editions).
In 1894 two French astronomers Maurice Loewy (1833-1907) and Pierre Henri Puiseux (1855-1928) began an undertaking that would consume their lives for the next fourteen years, as they endeavoured to photographically map much of the moon; a massive undertaking that Loewy would not live to see completed. Whilst the pair where certainly not the first to photograph the moon, that honour falls to the British-born, New York University chemistry professor and photographer John William Draper (1811-1882) who is credited with producing the first clear photograph of a female face between 1839–40, and in the same period the first detailed photograph of the Moon.
However Loewy and Puiseux’s objective and desire was to go far beyond the single photographic representation of the moon that Draper captured; or for that matter the later and more detailed work of Lewis Rutherfurd (1816-1892) — who developed the first telescope designed specifically for astrophotography — and whose lunar photographs where widely praised for their ‘faultless accuracy that any topographic map would be hard pressed to match,’ and ‘drew particular attention to how these images held the potential to accelerate the study of lunar geology.’ What the French pair set out to accomplish was to map a larger extent of the moons surface in astronomical detail than had been accomplished before; an achievement that would not be equalled for almost 60 years — placing their Atlas photographique de la Lune, alongside the likes of Eadweard Muybridge’s (1830-1904) Animal Locomotion (1887); or Edward S. Curtis’ (1868-1952) The North American Indian (1907-30), as one of the great photographic publishing ventures of the 19th century.
With earlier astronomical maps of the Moon, being either engravings, like Beer and Mädler’s Mappa Selenographica (1838) or lunar drawings, such as those completed by Julius Schmidt (1874) — both widely regarded at the time as the authoritative works of lunar mapping — Loewy and Puiseux set out to utilise the still relatively young medium of photography in their work. To do so, the duo first had to design a special telescope that allowed for 18 centimetre diameter photographic plates to be used, from which they would make the final large-format Heliographs. But this would be just one of the many obstacles that they would have to overcome as they strove to produce the Atlas photographique de la Lune, which would consist of 12 large-format (710 x 575mm) atlas booklets each containing six plates (with the exception of volume one, which contained only five), and 13 text volumes; a total of 71 plates in all.
‘Loewy and Puiseux’s address to the the Academy of Science in Paris on the 9th July 1894 was the first in a long series on the subject and outlined their project to produce the first complete photographic atlas of the moon,’ writes Quentin Bajac, Curator of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, in his introduction to the much welcomed digital edition of Atlas photographique de la Lune, by MAPP Editions (a digital sibling of Steidl). ‘On a scale of around 1.8 meters in diameter, which was close in scale to the map drawn by Schmidt, it would be realised with the help of images which were not only unquestionably authentic but also precise and rich in detail, unmarred by errors in perception and judgement. This was possible largely due to the technological advancements made in previous years in light sensitive plates and image enlargement.’
To produce the perfect negatives — with the right level of detail — and baring in mind that exposure times at the time could be as long as three seconds, Loewy and Puiseux needed exacting weather conditions. The ‘optimal conditions were a calm atmosphere and little to no change in temperature, factors which did not combine often,’ says Bajac. ‘In the first year, out of 50 or 60 evenings spent making photographs of the moon, just four or five nights gave the faultless results they needed.’ In total they took over 6,000 photographs during the projects duration, with a mere 71 making up the final work or to put it another way, less than two percent of the photographs they made would feature in the final work.
Today, complete copies of the now highly desirable Atlas photographique de la Lune are extremely rare — late last year two single plates, Mare Nectaris and another of the Montes Alpes region, sold at a Bonham’s auction for US$9,375 inc. premium, whilst an almost complete set (minus one text volume), sold for £45,000 at Christies in 2006 — this it has been suggested is largely a problem with the work being published over such an extended period of time. Although Loewy and Puiseux did exhibit their photographs in other forms, most notably at the Universal Exhibition of 1900, where Bajac says ‘a collection of seven larger images were presented at the Palais de l’Optique,’ and where the main ‘attraction was a telescope that measured 60 metres in length and supposedly allowed you to see the moon as if it were a metre away.’
In addition to the text volumes, each of the 71 heliograph’s in Atlas photographique de la Lune was presented with a translucent and annotated overlay that outlined the various craters and key features of the moon’s surface — which in this digital edition is displayed with a single tap of the screen. On one heliograph, we see the Mer de la Tranquillité (Sea of Tranquility) dominating the right-hand side of the image, whilst the Mer des Crises (Sea of Crises) sits to the left in Crisium basin; whilst the smaller craters are marked with equal care and attention to detail. ‘Of the two photographic atlas projects undertaken at the end of the twentieth century, one by the Paris Observatory [Loewy and Puiseux ] and the other by the Lick Observatory in the USA (Atlas of the Moon, 1896–1897), the former was by far the more ambitious and by and large the more accomplished,’ suggests Bajac.