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 photography 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.
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 personal experiences had by the night-sky observer in northern England – the research is underpinned by the work instigated in Donna Haraway’s theory of Situated Knowledges which challenged the epistemological viewpoints in contemporary technoscience practice. 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, the physicality of the local temperature/altitude or the journey/astronomical pilgrimage made prior to arrival. The aesthetic conventions of dark sky imaging involve applying ‘false colour’ and high saturation to dense stars, 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 stylistic inspiration for the design of their own images and continue to uphold the aesthetic style set. As the case with all genres of photography, these images are anthropocentric representations of the real, mediated through the mechanics of photography (with long exposures making invisible rays of light visible 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. To the photographer working with analogue processes or to those familiar with televised crime scene dramas, this hue might be reminiscent of the ruby glow of the black and white darkroom, the stable conditions required for one to develop images under light-sensitive conditions. To an astronomer, red light maintains the nocturnal conditions for sensitised visibility to the stars, for viewing a glimpse of white light (from the glow of a smartphone or beam emitting from car headlights) immediately blinds night vision, the ability to see the dullest ancient starlight for around 30 minutes.
By photographically capturing the dark environment with a wash of scarlet-lit ground in ‘Skyspace car park’ (where guests eagerly await the night’s activities at Kielder Observatory) and then printing it as an almost life-size scene for exhibition, the landscape has been transported from a topological reality to a theatrical representation. Through the exhibition, the visitor’s gaze becomes confronted a night-time Martian landscape, after the fact of when it was captured, a life-size record of a place conquered by the camera, not unlike the pictorial records captured by the human-operated rover cameras that meticulously roam the red planet. Printed for Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens (a cultural site built to inspire the regional audiences who visit), Dark Adaptation becomes a Martian museum diorama, similar to ‘Mission to Mars’ at the National Science and Media Museum, Bradford, which contains a 1:2 scale model of the Viking Lander, a machine that studied the planet’s surface from 1976. 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, only 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, made worse by the security of mobile phone signal that weakens to non-existence. Whilst a vehicle provides security for passengers for the duration of a trip, on arrival, they step outside of a familiar automotive interior and conquer a new frontier: Urry’s ‘alien other’.
I am reminded of Luci Eldrige’s PhD Mars, Invisible Vision and the Virtual Landscape: Immersive Encounters with Contemporary Rover Images, exploring viewing apparatuses and the transformative possibility of the ‘glitch’ as a way to cut through the imaging spectacle, using the Mars Yard (European Space Agency’s Martian research terrain) as one example; filled with sandy ground and pasted with the theatrical backdrop of rover imagery, the glitch arises when the illusion of this otherworldly land is momentarily broken through a recognition of the manmade flaws in its construction. Dark Adaptation does not fill the entire room, there is no rocky ground for visitors to immersively step upon and the edge of the image is clearly hung upon a grey museum wall – the work presents itself as an educational spectacle to inspire and imbue curiosity for the audience, contained within itself, the image illustrates an anthropocentric accomplishment of another world that humans may one day inhabit.
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.
Shoot: 17th May 2019
Drone camera operator: Jake Carley
Remoteness is crucial to the fields of science and technology – in astronomical research and tourism, isolated locations are inhabited by physicists, enthusiasts and curious visitors, such as the Paranal Observatory (housing the ‘Very Large Telescope’ and the forthcoming ‘Extremely Large Telescope’) located in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile, or the Mauna Kea Observatories (a number of astronomical research facilities known as the ‘Astronomy Precinct’) located at the summit of Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano at the highest point in Hawaii. Kielder Observatory is no different, located on the top of Black Fell, where it overlooks Kielder Water and the ramblers, picnic-goers and cyclists who fleetingly inhabit the local pathways.
When given an opportunity to shoot drone footage (facilitated by Jake Carley, one of the University of Sunderland’s undergraduate students), I plucked up the courage to seek permission from the local RAF base and couldn’t wait to experience Kielder Observatory, forest and water from above. Imagining this experiment, I could see myself writing a contextual critique about the connection between machines, surveillance, satellite technology and humans on Earth, about watching us being watched and the problematic reality of this; however, the experience of a days shooting and now looking at the footage retrospectively, I realise just how enormous and remote Kielder really is, and how a drone looking down at such a location can reveal the environmental conditions required for a protected dark sky park to operate.
I wonder if other than the imaginative space of cosmic darkness, is there a draw to visit Kielder either temporarily, or regularly over a period of time? On visiting, the problems connecting to mobile internet begin somewhere along the B6357 road, I realise when my Spotify account freezes and the music stops. Momentarily, my heart sinks when driving along the windy road along the Scottish border, I find myself fearing the sudden breakdown of my car… did I bring enough water, a torch… is there a blanket in the boot? On reaching Kielder, I’ve found that my phone drops in and out of signal near the observatory, there’s usually nothing in the Skyspace carpark, but beeps reappear once I reach the top of Black Fell. There’s something fascinating about the relationship between the disconnection and reconnection, but it’s bigger than the paranoia of a lack of phone signal, it’s about disconnecting from the chaos of every day and reconnecting with nature, and the wild darkness that surrounds it.
Or is this experiment about subversive vantage points? About us looking up at the sky at Kielder, to check the quality of dark skies, and the sky looking back down at us, revealing our isolated position as passive spectators?
“Bathed in the silent darkness of night, half-light of red liquid, we see differently here–half blinded, there is clarity within the inverted, hovering projection, within the floating shivering movement of image appearing upon its material support.” (2011, p. 82)
The book discusses how photography has recorded our expeditions of space. From Daguerreotypes to digitally mediated images, photography has mapped geographic and geological features as scientific data. Frank Borman (commander of Apollo 8, first manned flight to the moon) writes the preface, commenting on the highly technological advancements made to American industry due to the space programme. He speaks of the only thing holding back further work is the financial expense.
“The exploration of space and major technological advances have made us all explorers of the cosmos. We have witnessed the marvels of other worlds – craters on the Moon, huge canyons on Mars, active volcanoes on Io, and the enigmatic rings of Saturn.” (1981, p. 9)
Images are representations, and photographic technology mediates our vision, the author refers to a Soviet spacecraft that photographed the surface of Venus where the atmosphere is one hundredth the density of Earth’s atmosphere, floodlights might be required to view through the thickness. Experience/oral histories enhance our understanding of these images, i.e. the moon has no atmosphere, nothing to diffuse sunlight into twilight. David Scott (commander on Apollo 15) describes the sensations of travelling around the moon, where bright sunlight suddenly drops into darkness. As viewers on earth, we require this storytelling to imagine such a sensation. Images of the moon are described as disappointing by Astronaut David Scott, who compares the photographic representation to the memory of viewing the extraordinary landscapes.
“But imagine stepping out onto a surface where landforms and scales cover the lunar landscpe – one sees an interesting crater in the distance – but how far away is it? There are no trees, shrubs, telephone poles, or houses, to provide perspective.” – (1981, p. 10)
The book talks about the colour of the sky, how the sky is blue on Earth (due to the atmosphere) and it appears black in space. It’s difficult to decipher colour of the sky on other planets, but attempts were made with the Viking landers when photographing Mars – colour charts were on the side of the spacecraft, to make comparisons of the surface and the sky (which appears pinkish due to particles of red dust in the atmosphere). Published in the early 1980’s, the text refers to recent ‘technological advancements’ of recording non-visible light, something that has enormously advanced since.
The catalogue includes image plates dating from the 70s and early 80s, images are mostly from NASA. The catalogue feels like an early attempt where ‘data’ photographs are used to capture the public imagination.
Grey Art Gallery. (1081) The photography of space exploration. New York: New York University.
On Thursday 23rd November 2017, I attended my first stargazing event at Kielder Observatory, called ‘A Universe Full of Stars’.
As I approached Kielder Forest in my car, darkness overwhelmed me. It was difficult to predict what such a dark environment would look like, we are so used to polluted light. I drive up the long, winding track for two further miles to reach the observatory, which stood proudly overlooking the forest. Parking up, I switch my full beam headlights off, open the door and step out of the car.
Now I feel the darkness.
Doing the obvious, I grab my phone, turn on torch mode to find locate my gloves and find the observatory entrance. This was not as easy as it might have seemed, the light emulating from my torch was simply just too weak. I pointed it towards my feet to help navigate the unsteady ground and walked towards a green beam of what I presume to be some sort of safe light, a little bit like the red glow of the black and white darkroom. An observatory volunteer wrapped up in warm reflective clothing greeted me and showed me to my seat.
The event began, I sat in the wood-cabin-like room alongside excited astro-enthusiasts in front of a glowing red fire and a magnificent projection screen of animated stars that whirled around like a film clip from Star Wars. Gary introduced the observatory’s story, as well as some mind-blowing physics that made a bit more sense to me than it did previously. We sat for a while, watching and listening, some asked questions while waiting for a suitable moment to stargaze, for although it was only late November, it had started to snow.
Then, the moment came. We were invited to the observation rooms, I visited the one furthest to the right. When I arrived, the volunteer slowly wound a leaver to open the roof, revealing a fantastic view of the night’s sky. Kielder Observatory is a strange mix of off-grid eccentricities, like generators and compost toilets and high-end technology, which I see in this space. Screens locate the stars, sending data to the huge reflector telescope, which whirrs romantically when changing position. I await my turn to gaze at the Orion nebula: a gassy formation of dust clouds and interstellar matter.
One eye closed, I observe. Gazing through the atmosphere, stars twinkle and vibrate. Later that evening, I see my first shooting star. How can I capture this feeling through photography?
I decided to stay the night and take a stroll through Kielder Forest the next day. Wrapped up for the cold weather not nearly enough, I walk towards the observatory. In her book Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit notes:
“Walking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord. Walking allows is to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them. It leaves us free to think without being wholly lost in our thoughts.” (2002, p. 5)
My mind wandered, as I did and it occurred to me that there was a freedom in this moment, the depth of my imagination as a lone female in this deep pine-scented forest. For my project, my photographic space exploration can be anything I wish for it to be, I can wander in the many directions of this forest. However, my ultimate goal is to engage others with this work, for future audiences to lose and find themselves in the moment. I hope to inspire young audiences to reach for the stars, particularly women in Northeast England, those who may feel the weight of their assigned class, and how it might otherwise stand in the way of their hopes and dreams.
“When you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back; the more one comes to know them, the more one seeds them with the invisible crop of memories and associations that will be waiting for you when you come back, while new places offer up new thoughts, new possibilities.” (2002, p. 13)
Solnit, R. (2002) Wanderlust: A History of Walking.London: Verso.