With the precision (if not the artistry) of the graph-paper-armed architect, we had the perfect plan for building a contraption that would allow us exacting control over the exposure of what would be Lia’s first, large-format cyanotype prints for her series, Your Body Is a Space that Sees.
With a diagram that took longer to slap together in Photoshop than it should have, Garret and I headed to Home Depot to grab everything we would need.
We spent the next forty or so man-hours putting together Henrietta, as we soon called her, after astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt (from hard drives to cameras to Wi-Fi networks and passwords, everything is ultimately sworn into duty with a name fit for Your Body Is a Space that Sees). Leavitt was a Harvard College Observatory “computer” back when that was an appropriate title for a human. Her turn-of-the-century work in computing the brightness (or luminosity) of stars and the relationship between luminosity and the period of Cepheid variable stars laid the groundwork for future astronomers to measure the distance between far-away galaxies and Earth, which greatly aided Edwin Hubble in his discovery that the universe was expanding.
By the time we finished putting her together, Henrietta was truly a beast. The two-by-fours we had selected for her construction were, admittedly, complete overkill. In order to support this weight, we had attached four grotesquely large blocks for her legs. We had some nifty locks fashioned into all the right places to keep the unit somewhat workable in practice. But ultimately, Henrietta resembled nothing of her namesake, who was certainly more swan-like than the Frankenstein of a machine we put together. Want something overbuilt? Leave it to two, twenty-something, over six-foot-tall, well-meaning but rather passionate guys.
When all was said and done, Henrietta was a name we had barely begun to get used to before our first tests proved to us that the ultraviolet lights we put into this contraption were far too dim to be of use to us.
Of course, there is a good reason that we didn’t first test one small print with a single, fluorescent UV light before going through the expense or time commitment of actually building Henrietta. Scientifically, this profound reason is referred to as human error. Put more colloquially, we screwed up.
Perhaps it was the name choice itself that doomed us from the beginning. But it was only in hindsight that I realized the irony of Henrietta’s unfortunate lack in brightness. The Cepheids Leavitt measured over 100 years ago remain over 100,000 times more luminous than our sun, but we could not coax Henrietta into producing enough light for a single cyanotype within any reasonable amount of time.
Consider this Lesson One: test, test, and test more.