Over the course of photographing for what would become his 2010 monograph Invisible: Covert Operations and Classified Landscapes, Trevor Paglen spent years tracking the orbit of American military spacecraft and documenting their ghostly trails across the night sky. The resulting images (which also appeared in Aperture # 191) were as much about photography itself—exploring the power and the limits of photographic knowledge—as they were meditations on the relationship between humankind and the infinite. In a fascinating evolution of this work, Paglen is now behind The Last Pictures, a project that will attach a record of human photographic images onto a satellite that will be sent into orbit in September 2012. Paglen spent five years interviewing scientists, artists, anthropologists, and philosophers to decide what images should compose this photo-historical record, and then worked with materials scientists at MIT to inscribe the 100 images he chose onto an “ultra-archival” silicon disc (not unlike the Pioneer Plaques and the Voyager Golden Record) that will be attached to EchoStar XVI. This satellite will function as a regular television satellite for the next fifteen years before powering down, entering a “graveyard orbit,” and remaining for billions of years as a photographic relic of modern human civilization for future civilizations and lifeforms to discover. And perhaps it will even show up in one of Paglen’s future photographs.
Here on earth in the year 2012, you can catch Paglen’s lecture tour (beginning September in New York) featuring philosophers and scientists discussing the project. Later this year, Creative Time will publish a book of the images, accompanied by short texts by those who contributed to the project. For more on Paglen and his work, visit his website.