Under the Rays of the Aurora Borealis

“Every attempt I made to photograph the Aurora Borealis failed…in spite of using the most sensitive dry plates, and exposing them from four to seven minutes, I did not succeed in obtaining even the very faintest trace of a negative.

The reason is, I am convinced, the small strength of light, and its limited chemical action. The illustrations, therefore, of the Aurora Borealis at Koutokeino accompanying this work are… photographic reproductions of my own drawings”.

Sophus Tromholt, Under the Rays of the Aurora Borealis, English translation by Carl Siewers, published in London, 1885.


During the first International Polar Year 1882/3, Danish-born school teacher and self-taught scientist, Sophus Tromholt, travelled to Kautokeino, Norway to establish a northern lights research centre.

Under the Rays of the Aurora Borealis centred around a set of aurora drawings made by Tromholt during that year and found in the University of Bergen archive by creative archaeologist and journalist Christine Finn earlier this year.

Whilst Tromholt’s contribution to the development of auroral science is well-recognised, and his photographic portraits of the Sami regarded as remarkable examples of Victorian ethnographic photography, his images of the northern lights have remained relatively unseen and unknown. Originally made to accompany his newspaper articles and also used as illustrations for his book “Under the Rays of the Aurora Borealis” which gives an account of his year in Kautokeino, their presentation at Timespan encouraged a viewing of these images as works of art.

Their exhibition came about following a chance discovery by Christine Finn. Under her first auroras in Finland, she came across Tromholt’s portraits of the Sami in a reproduction of his book “Under the Rays of the Aurora Borealis”.  Fascinated by the relationship he had with the Sami, she was inspired to view Tromholt’s archive at the University of Bergen in Norway. Here, amongst the portraits of Sami and their landscape of Finnmark and Lapland, she was surprised to find a small number of albumen prints of auroras. Learning these were not photos but drawings, made when Tromholt’s photographic process failed, she wanted to see them more widely viewed.

The works in the exhibition were made from the original glass plate negatives now held in the Tromholt collection in Bergen. Since 2013, this archive has been included on the UNESCO Memory of the  World register, thanks to the championing of the University of Bergen archive. The images make visible the layers of process that have taken place over the passage of time, evidencing the Victorian photographic and publishing processes, and 21st century digital reproduction. The wooden surface against which Tromholt captured the drawings using his large plate camera is visible, knots and all. Also present are the annotations showing the dates and times at which each aurora was recorded, almost certainly in Tromholt’s own hand. And, in some of the works, the remains of what was possibly glue. These traces are part of an archaeology of the image, from Tromholt’s eye, his pencil on paper, to glass plate negative, then digital file, and now, digital print.

Now showing in the far North of Scotland, these images will tour to Northern Lights locations in the Arctic, and beyond, over eleven years, a nod to cycle of the aurora borealis.

Image credit: Sophus Tromholt, Picture Collection, University of Bergen Library, Norway