Eric Blackhurst's first career, in surf photography, was about as different as can be from his current one, deep-space photography.
For several years he took pictures for Transworld Surf and similar magazines. But although the lifestyle of a surf photographer sounds fantastic-travel to exotic destinations and hang out with the surfers-it's difficult to make ends meet, and the lifestyle can be a drain.
"I spent 10 days in a 15-foot ponga off the coast of Ensenada. That was 10 days of being seasick, and stiff, and wet, and in the end, four of my photographs [were published]. That's about as close to being a slam dunk as you can have in surf photography, and, in the end, it wasn't enough to make a living."
Blackhurst saw he had a choice. "Either I could whore myself out as an assistant photographer in L.A., or I could come back to work at OPT [Oceanside Photo and Telescope], where I'd been working when I was in school."
The community at OPT helped reignite Blackhurst's latent love of astronomy. "I'd always been interested, but before I came to work here, there hadn't been equipment, or a peer group to go out with."
Being a photographer by training and inclination, it was natural to combine the two. "The visual aspect of astronomy is great. But if you live in Southern California, then you might not have three hours to drive to a dark sky."
Counter-intuitively, deep-space photography requires less darkness than standard visual astronomy, because with long exposures, a camera can create an image out of what would be virtual darkness to the human eye. "With a 4-inch telescope, and a five-minute exposure time, you can see more than you can with your eye through the largest amateur telescopes," Blackhurst says.
So in order to photograph these very faint objects, it's necessary to use a very slow shutter speed, one not measured in minutes but hours or even nights. That exposure time requires a telescope mount that rotates along with the earth, so that stars appear as points of light and not as long trails. "The right ascension axis must line up with the earth's rotational axis," Blackhurst explains. "On an elementary level, there's nothing sophisticated about these mounts."
It's a little hard to believe him. Programming any device to hold still while the earth rotates around it doesn't seem much like remedial math. And that's only one layer of complexity. Digital cameras, like the ones Blackhurst uses, pick up a lot of background noise when hot and need built-in cooling systems. Then you need a laptop to calculate the location of what you want to photograph. And the power to run all of this. And the filters to assign color. And the computer programs for the extensive processing required for each image.
Aside from the monumental technical complexities of the photography itself, there's the logistics of the shoots, which are often done in remote deserts and on hilltops. So not only must the mount, camera and laptop be moved and set up, but the electricity to power it as well. Then there are the elements to contend with. The desert late at night is neither warm nor inviting. Blackhurst recommends duck-hunting clothes-possibly the only clothes specifically designed for people to sit in cold weather without moving.
It's quite a jump from the fluidity of sports photography to what we perceive as the static nature of things in space. "Actually, the things we photograph change dramatically all the time," Blackhurst says, "but relative to their size, the change is imperceptible to us."
Rather than the dynamism of the image, Blackhurst says it is the ability required to create it that's the real appeal. "There's a great degree of technical difficulty at play. Mastery of that is more of the essence of the hobby than the images themselves, backwards as that sounds.
"There's always a drive to go deeper, not in terms of distance, but in terms of dimness. You can snap a picture of Andromeda in 30 seconds, but detail builds and builds as you get into three- and four-hour exposures," he says.
"Amateurs can record the details of the dust and gas that surround the galaxies. They make theories about dark matter and galaxy evolution. I think that deep-space photography is unique in this way, that the achievements of people going out and having a good time contribute to hard science."
He pauses self-consciously. "So, yeah, I'm a geek. But it's fun."
"Geek" is a pretty vague adjective, but if it indicates an almost pathological obsession that transcends both hobby and career, it might pretty closely describe Blackhurst. He puts in more than 60 hours a week as manager at OPT. Then, during a clear time of the year, like January, he can be up until 5 a.m. for half a week photographing. He's the first to admit that the schedule is exhausting.
"I wouldn't have made a good drug dealer," he explains. "The first rule is never get to into what you're selling. But I'm as much of an addict as anyone who shops with us."