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Expanding Universe: Photographs from the Hubble Space Telescope, Nina Weiner (Ed), Taschen, 2015, 256pp, £44.99, ISBN 978-3-8365-4922-6 [hardback]

19th April 2015


Just when you thought you’d seen the last coffee-table book on the Hubble Space Telescope, along comes another one…and it happens to be the best yet. As a publisher, Taschen is famous for its provocative and off-the-wall books, but it’s equally well known for its high standards of production. For those who think that the hard-copy book is dead, think again!

It’s clear from the moment you open this book that it is something different: the quality of the dust jacket and the thickness of the cover board testify to that. The majority of the book is printed on smooth, glossy paper that really shows off the Hubble’s images, but the introductory and closing sections feature a parchment-like material that, while less good for imagery, gives a feeling (quite literally) of quality.

It goes without saying that the Hubble has produced some amazing images. Indeed, some of the spreads feel almost as expansive as the universe they depict: this is a large format book (approx. 30cm square), so when you open out the larger panoramic spreads you need a desk – or indeed coffee table – that’s almost four feet wide.

The book’s end section includes a photo index that reproduces the images from the main section and gives names, positions, instruments used and other data. This avoids the distraction of captions in the main spreads, but omits any explanation of what the reader is viewing (thus placing it firmly in the ‘art book’ classification).

There is a short foreword by Charles Bolden, perhaps best known as the 12th NASA Administrator – but he’s really here as the pilot of STS-31, the Space Shuttle mission that deployed the telescope in 1990. “I knew…it would reveal new vistas of previously unknown places and phenomena in our galaxy and beyond”, he says. “But we had no idea how much the [Hubble] would open our eyes to the unimaginable vastness and beauty of the universe”. And this is probably why, 25 years after that launch, a publisher has bothered to bring out another Hubble photobook. There’s something about the images that takes you out of your surroundings, out of your world, to enable the contemplation of a wider universe. It would be going too far to imply a sort of spiritual experience, but it makes you think.

Having said that, I’m fairly sure that’s not the reason Taschen sanctioned the book’s publication: most of the images can be justified not as science or discovery, but as art. And if that’s the case, give me M16, Doradus and the Bug Nebula over Jackson Pollock any day!