What do we lose when we lose a view of the stars? Photographer Ian Cheney and his brother, Colin, explore our changing experience of night in their portfolio of images and poems published in the September/October 2012 issue of Orion, “I Should Learn to Look at an Empty Sky.” We asked Ian, who’s also a filmmaker, about the genesis of his and Colin’s project, and about his new film, The City Dark, which will be featured at this year’s Big Water Film Festival. The festival kicks off this weekend in Washburn, Wisconsin.
Your and Colin’s piece in the September/October 2012 issue of Orion, “I Should Learn to Look at an Empty Sky,” is a mix of poetry and photography. How did you two begin working together? Did you immediately see the benefit of mixing verse and image?
Colin’s poetry is highly visual, and I strive to bring a poetic sensibility to a lot of my filming and photography, so it wasn’t a huge leap for us to explore the juxtaposition of his words and my images. That said, we each came to the work independently—as if our youthful years stargazing in Maine gradually bubbled up inside of us of their own accord.
You both grew up in rural Maine, where the stars must have made an impression on you. Can you describe your memories of the night sky there?
My memories of the stars in Maine are quite bound up in my other senses: the chill of the cold, the smell of wildflowers in summer or blue snow in winter, the tinkle of dew in the grass. I think my affection for the Milky Way is quite connected to my affection for the wilderness of rural Maine. Put another way: perhaps the night sky should be considered part of the “environment,” and should receive the attention usually accorded more tangible wilderness areas like rivers, forests, and marshes.
These days, you and Colin live in big cities—you’re in Brooklyn, he’s in Bangkok—where electric light obscures the stars. What do you think we lose when we lose a view of the night sky?
That’s a big question! One I’ll likely spend many years trying to answer through my work, in one form or another. But one sliver of an answer is this: understanding our position relative to the solar system, the galaxy, and the universe provides a humbling—and, I would argue, empowering—sense of perspective.
The less we connect to the stars, the more solipsistic we might become as a species, losing sight of all we have to learn and explore. The more we connect to the stars, the more we wonder—and it’s hard to put a price tag on wonder.
You’ve also recently finished work on The City Dark, a documentary about the loss of natural darkness in cities and towns. Did you learn anything unexpected in the course of making the film?
When I began making the film, I knew very little about the science of sleep. There’s a fascinating and growing body of research about the effects of light at night on our body’s circadian rhythm—there are some indications that by disrupting our nighttime melatonin production, excessive night light could be weakening our body’s natural defenses against certain cancers. So light pollution doesn’t only affect our view of the stars; it might affect our bodies as well.
Can you recommend any good stargazing spots in Brooklyn or nearby? Where do you go when you need a break from urban glare?
Well, a rooftop is a good bet. Or big open spaces: I like being near the water, and many astronomers gather at Floyd Bennett Field over by JFK airport. I also like the High Line in Manhattan. The lights there are designed to shine downward, from hip-height, so one is drawn upwards to the sky when walking along the old rail lines.
Ian and Colin Cheney’s portfolio in the September/October 2012 issue of Orion is available in print and digital editions. Go ahead, subscribe!