He used to study the night sky. Now he’s turned his gaze to earthly scenes around him.
Since retiring as Amherst’s Sidney Dillon Professor of Astronomy, George Greenstein has reinvented himself as a fine art photographer.
“Reinvented” is Greenstein’s word, although he did not wait until his 2012 retirement to begin taking photographs. He first picked up a camera in his early 20s and for decades approached photography as “a very serious hobby.”
Now he’s had two exhibitions at New York City’s Soho Photo Gallery—a “community gallery,” he says, rather than a commercial one. His most recent show, Ice & Sky: Greenland, debuted in April and featured black-and-white landscapes he shot there last summer.
His goal in photographing Greenland was to “capture the sense I felt there of a terrain gigantic, solemn and inhospitable, and possessed of a stern, implacable beauty.” His trip was spurred by his fascination with extreme locations; he’s also visited and photographed Nepal, Patagonia and the High Arctic.
His first show was a portrait series at the Soho gallery in 2014. Though astronomy has no direct influence on that exhibition, his knowledge and passion for science is evident in his written description of the portraits: “Evolution has made our faces objects of intense interest. Social animals that we are, we study each other’s expressions. I often find myself gazing upon portraits, seeking the essential natures of their subjects.”
While teaching at Amherst, Greenstein frequented a little-known darkroom in the basement of the College’s Wilder Observatory. The Observatory is home to what was once among the largest telescopes in the world, and when it was built in 1903, telescopes collected data via photographs.
“Astronomy, of course, is the most visual of sciences,” Greenstein wrote in 2012, when the Town of Amherst Biennial featured one of his photographs. “All of us are thrilled by the lovely images of the cosmos returned by the Hubble Space Telescope and other observatories ... but it is the earthly world, not the astronomical one, that primarily fuels my interest in photography.”
Though he denies that his scientific interests are directly related to his photographs, Greenstein is now dividing his time evenly between photography and science. He’s working on a series of photographs capturing “people in interesting encounters,” and he’s writing a book for the general public about mysteries in quantum mechanics.