Object Lesson: North Polar Stars by Maynard Walker

Maynard Walker (American, active 20th century), North Polar Stars, c. 1930, Gelatin silver print, Museum purchase, Zemurray Foundation, 75.305

It can be both comforting and humbling to seek out things in the natural world that provide a sense of stability and permanence. On clear days, the night sky offers this experience, as it has for many throughout history. The position of Polaris, the North Star, changes very little in relation to earth, as this image demonstrates, and has therefore been an important guiding point in navigation for centuries.

In this long exposure from the early part of the twentieth century, Polaris is visible as the short bright streak closest to the center. Although this image seems to trace the path of the stars through the night sky over a long period of time, what it actually records, of course, is our own planet earth spinning through space and time. Visually, the concentric circles formed by the star trails are evocative of an infinite tunnel, receding into the dark abyss of history. This is particularly fitting, considering that the light that reaches us from these stars today is, in fact, from ancient history. The light from the North Star, at any given moment, is over four-hundred years old, reminding us that each time we peer into the night sky, we are looking back in time, to a moment that long predates our own existence.

Russell Lord, Freeman Family Curator of Photographs, Prints, and Drawings

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