‘Observe, Experiment, Archive’ #1 (Dark Adaptation)

A group photography exhibition at Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens. Exhibiting artists: Mandy Barker, Tessa Bunney, Liza Dracup, Sophie Ingleby, Helen McGhie, Maria McKinney, Robert Zhao Renhui and Penelope Umbrico.

From 15th November 2019 – 5th January 2020, my photographic research was exhibited as part of the exhibition ‘Observe, Experiment, Archive’ at Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens, programmed and curated by the North East Photography Network (NEPN) which explored:

“[…] the parallels between photography and scientific methods such as observation, experimentation and archiving [and] how contemporary photographic artists can respond to both scientific innovation and historical collections, their work transforming our world through light and lens” (Sunderland Culture, 2019)

This was an opportunity to develop and produce work for the context of a public museum, where an appropriate engagement for the audience (families, schools, individuals not specialised in astronomy) was crucial.

Dark Adaptation, Helen McGhie (2019)

Using Kielder Observatory (located in Europe’s largest International Dark Sky Park) as the context for creating photography, my practice-led PhD is centred around the cultural connectedness of astronomy and photography with an emphasis on the social and personal experiences had by the night-sky observer – the research is underpinned by Donna Haraway’s theory of Situated Knowledges. Since reflecting on my theoretical and methodological position during my recent Annual Monitoring Review, my project design has become much clearer than it was when I embarked on the research in 2017.

Many cultural images of dark skies are records of observations had captured and shared through photography (of course, images can be digital fabrications built by algorithms and AI, but this is not the focus of my PhD) – there is often little or no trace of the observer in astrophotography, no evidence of a transformative experience had, physicality of the local temperature/altitude or the journey/astronomical pilgrimage made prior to arrival. The aesthetic conventions of dark sky imaging involve dense stars, high contrast/saturation and an application of ‘false colour’ to render non-visible light visible (Ventura, 2013). Government-funded organisations (each with its own agenda on national security) such as NASA and the ESA (as well as astronomers at the Hubble Heritage Project) have set the visual standards for how the public recognises outer space, by creating ‘copyright free’ images available for download on official sites (perhaps set up to create a rationale for the allocation of public taxes?), with access to such data-rich resources, amateur astrophotographers have ongoing inspiration for the design of their own images, thus continue to uphold the visual style set by others. As the case with all genres of photography, these images are mediated through the mechanics of photography (with long exposures making visible the invisible to the human eye) and do not represent an entirely accurate visualisation of moments witnessed. To consider this, I wonder if it is possible to visualise a closer experience of dark sky observation in northeast England? And can the creation and dissemination of the photographic art that I make enhance the cultural offer of Kielder Observatory, as a remotely located public-outreach astronomical facility in Northumberland?

In Observe, Experiment, Archive, my large-scale photograph ‘Dark Adaptation’ (2019) presented the audience with a red, rocky landscape – a nocturnal car park captured under the glow of artificial red light – from a photographic perspective, this hue may be recognised from the glow of the black and white darkroom, however, the red light here refers to the nocturnal conditions that astronomers work under in order to retain their night vision. Viewing a glimpse of white light (the glow of phones or car headlights) ruins night vision and the ability to see the darkest glows in the night’s sky for around 30 minutes. By capturing the red ground in the ‘Skyspace carpark’ near Kielder Observatory and blowing it up to a large size for OEA, the exhibition visitor is confronted with a Martian landscape at night, reminiscent of the cultural images of the red planet in Science Fiction and museum dioramas such as Mission to Mars at the National Science and Media Museum, Bradford.

Mars, Bradford Museum Dec19
Mission to Mars from Hello Universe, National Science and Media Museum, 19 July 2019 – 22 January 2020. Image: the author.

I am reminded of Luci Eldrige’s work on Martian landscapes, where she explores viewing apparatus’ and the ‘glitch’ when experiencing Mars as a simulation on Earth, but in the context of my cultural partnership with Kielder Observatory. Like the museum diorama – a stage-set created to imbue curiosity of a moment passed or not yet experienced – Dark Adaptation adopts the same process for viewing audiences in Sunderland, many of whom may have never previously visited Kielder Observatory.

Through the installation of artificial light and props, the blank canvas of a theatre stage becomes an elaborate ‘elsewhere’ and the application of artificial lighting on to the surface of a car park in Dark Adaptation performs a similar function. The relationship between a vehicle and its driver has been reflected on by sociologist John Urry:

“Dwelling at speed, car-drivers lose the ability to perceive local detail, to talk to strangers, to learn of local ways of life, to stop and sense each different place. […] The environment beyond that windscreen is an alien other” (Urry, 2006, p. 23)

Kielder Observatory is located in a remote part of Northumberland, mostly accessed by vehicle. For new visitors unfamiliar with Kielder Forest, driving along the winding, dark roads towards the observatory may be a nerve-racking experience, particularly when mobile phone signal is extremely patchy in the local area. A vehicle provides security for its passengers for the duration of a trip, but on arrival, passengers step outside of this familiar interior onto a new frontier: Urry’s ‘alien other’. However recognisable the surface of a car park may be, it is a new land stepped upon by each new visitor. The impact of red lighting on the landscape in Dark Adaptation represents this moment as an uncanny and almost extraterrestrial experience.



Eldridge, L. (2017) ‘Mars, Invisible Vision and the Virtual Landscape: Immersive Encounters with Contemporary Rover Images’, PhD Thesis, Royal College of Art.

Haraway, D. (1988) ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective’, Feminist Studies, 14(3), p. 575.

Hello Universe (2019-20) [Exhibition]. National Science and Media Museum, Bradford. 19 July 2019 – 22 January 2020.

Observe Experiment Archive (2019-20) [Exhibition]. Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens, Sunderland. 15 November 2019 – 5 January 2020.

Sunderland Culture. (2019) Observe, Experiment, Archive. Available at: https://sunderlandculture.org.uk/events/observe-experiment-archive/ (Accessed: 10 February 2020).


Urry, J. (2006) ‘Inhabiting the Car’, The Sociological Review, 54(1_suppl), pp. 17–31.

Ventura, A. (2013) ‘Pretty Pictures: The Use of False Color in Image of Deep Space’,
Invisible Culture: An Electronic Journal for Visual Studies, (19).