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Mars photographs as reproduced in Percival Lowell, ‘New photographs of Mars: taken by the astronomical expedition to the Andes and now first published’, Century Magazine , 75 (1907): 303–11. The advent of photographical reproduction presented Lowell with difficulties. The small circles in the array at the left—produced directly from a sheet of negatives at original size—are each hardly larger than a few letters of the text. Lowell and his associate Lampland had not found a way to produce larger negative images of Mars without requiring long time-exposures that would introduce blur. To a magazine reader, unfortunately, original-size images such as those arrayed on the left were thus nearly unintelligible, showing little more than variations of light and dark, depending on the exposure time for each photograph. The intermediate-sized circles on the right are enlargements of selected photographic originals centred on the 90 degree meridian. The largest circle (centre right) is a sketch of the same region from Lowell’s 1907 observation logbook, which he included for comparison and as a guide to the enlarged photographs to help readers pick out the canals and the conspicuous dark spot known as the ‘Solis Lacus’. Lowell’s text warns the reader, however, that the process of enlargement is of minimal use, as it enlarges also the grain of the photograph and ‘must not be overdone’. Despite being hailed as more objective images than maps, then, photographs were of little use for confirming the existence of the canals, especially in the public eye. (Reproduced with permission from the University of Texas.) 

Mars photographs as reproduced in Percival Lowell, ‘New photographs of Mars: taken by the astronomical expedition to the Andes and now first published’, Century Magazine , 75 (1907): 303–11. The advent of photographical reproduction presented Lowell with difficulties. The small circles in the array at the left—produced directly from a sheet of negatives at original size—are each hardly larger than a few letters of the text. Lowell and his associate Lampland had not found a way to produce larger negative images of Mars without requiring long time-exposures that would introduce blur. To a magazine reader, unfortunately, original-size images such as those arrayed on the left were thus nearly unintelligible, showing little more than variations of light and dark, depending on the exposure time for each photograph. The intermediate-sized circles on the right are enlargements of selected photographic originals centred on the 90 degree meridian. The largest circle (centre right) is a sketch of the same region from Lowell’s 1907 observation logbook, which he included for comparison and as a guide to the enlarged photographs to help readers pick out the canals and the conspicuous dark spot known as the ‘Solis Lacus’. Lowell’s text warns the reader, however, that the process of enlargement is of minimal use, as it enlarges also the grain of the photograph and ‘must not be overdone’. Despite being hailed as more objective images than maps, then, photographs were of little use for confirming the existence of the canals, especially in the public eye. (Reproduced with permission from the University of Texas.) 

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Dr Maria Lane is an assistant instructor in the Department of Geography and the Environment, University of Texas at Austin.At the turn of the twentieth century, a popular mania developed around the idea that Mars was inhabited by intelligent beings. This obsession was originally based in the science of the time, but it outlasted astronomers' certai...

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... a new method of planetary photography that could capture a clear image with only a short time exposure. 22 When his assistant Carl O. Lampland succeeded in photographing Mars in 1905, Lowell quickly began publishing and circulating the images to rescue his reputation. For a time, this strategy worked. Despite being small and grainy, the photographs indeed contained some dark markings in areas where Lowell’s maps depicted canals, indicating a confirmation. At a June 1906 meeting of the British Astronomical Association, the President A. C. D. Crommelin stated that Lowell’s photographs proved the ‘objective reality of the canals’, reviving belief within the British astronomical community. 23 In 1907, however, new optical illusion experi- ments carried out in the United States immediately produced a reverse sway in scientific opinion concerning the reality of the canals. 24 While relentlessly rebutting the illusion research, Lowell clearly determined that he needed to shore up the authority of his claims regarding the objective reality of the canals. 25 In the face of what he perceived as an onslaught, Lowell mounted a high- profile photographic expedition to South America for the 1907 planetary opposition, 26 essentially staking his reputation on the new imaging techniques that Lampland had developed since 1905. As British and American magazines and newspapers hyped the expedition, scientific and popular anticipation mounted. 27 When Lowell’s photogra- pher finally returned from the Andes with the negatives, however, the images proved a general disappointment. Lowell claimed that the 1907 photographs dispelled all doubt regarding the existence of the Martian canals. Paradoxically, however, they con- tributed to his further loss of credibility. With each photographic image of Mars typically measuring less than half an inch in diameter on the negatives, the photographs showed far less detail than any of Lowell’s elaborate maps ( Fig. 5). Although the photographs could be said to confirm Lowell’s simple sketches, showing some isolated lines on the on the surface of Mars, they did not show a definitive canal network. On top of that, the photographs were incredibly difficult to reproduce: their original size was too small to show any significant detail, yet they became excessively grainy when enlarged. Lowell agonized over the proper presentation of his photographs in the Century Magazine , even asking that they be ‘retouched’ to show the canals better. 28 Having paid a substantial sum for the copyright of the images, however, the editor was in no mood to delay publication of the long-promised Martian canal photographs: ‘There is no time to retouch the photographic plates and we should consider it a calamity to do so, as it would entirely spoil the autographic value of the photographs themselves. There would always be somebody to say that the results were from the brains of the retoucher’. 29 To counteract his expectation that the unedited photographs would reproduce poorly, Lowell began sending negatives and prints to select astronomers in Britain in the calculated hope that these men would vouch for the photographed canals in their own publications and presentations. 30 This strategy produced some desirable results. Crommelin reported that when he exam- ined Lowell’s images he had seen twenty-two canals. 31 Likewise, the director of the British Astronomical Association’s Mars Section commented in his report on the 1907 opposition that, ‘Regarding the objectivity of the canals of Mars, there seems no necessity or room for doubt after the truly splendid photographic results obtained by Messrs. Lowell and Lampland’. 32 Despite such personal opinions, however, the fact remained that Lowell’s photographs were not convincing in any of the formats available for mass distribution. They appeared too small, too blurry or too dark to match the certainty levels that had been inscribed in the maps. Wherever the much- vaunted photographs were published, Lowell usually insisted that they were to be accompanied by a disclaimer. In the 1907 Century Magazine exclusive, for instance, Lowell alerted readers that the printed images were three steps removed from the original negative as a result of the processes of photographic printing, half-toning and press printing. He also warned that use of a magnifying glass would only increase the grain size without revealing more details. Lowell was thus obliged to make a delicate argument. On the one hand he asserted that ‘to the camera no evasion of the fact avails. They [the canals] are there, and the film refuses to report them other than they are’, while on the other hand he was forced to qualify the photographs as ‘handicapped’, claiming the canals’ ‘straightness is more pronounced than appears from the photographic print’. 33 Perhaps more damaging than the inadequate reproduction of the tiny photographs was the fact that after 1907 photography began to supplant cartography as the proper standard of proof for features discernible on Mars. The build-up ...

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