Luci Eldridge – Mars, Invisible Vision and the Virtual Landscape: Immersive Encounters with Contemporary Rover Images, RCA 2017

PhD Abstract:

“How do contemporary imaging devices and the forms in which images are displayed affect our perception of Mars? How are scientists and engineers visually exploring, experiencing and navigating this uninhabitable terrain? Can we better understand this virtual landscape through immersive imaging techniques, or are these simply illusions? At what point does the glitch invade these immersive spaces, throwing us back into the realm of the image? And finally, can the glitch be seen as a method towards another kind of visibility, enabling us to ‘see’ and encounter Mars in productive ways? Through the analysis of contemporary representations of the Martian terrain, Mars, Invisible Vision and the Virtual Landscape: Immersive Encounters with Contemporary Rover Images offers a new contribution to studies of the digital and virtual image. Specifically addressing immersive image forms used in Mars exploration the research is structured around four main case studies: life-size illusions such as panoramas; 3D imaging; false colour imaging; and the concept of a ‘Mars Yard’. The thesis offers a new understanding of human interaction with a landscape only visible through a screen, and how contemporary scientific imaging devices aim to collapse the frame and increase a sense of immersion in the image. Arguing that these representations produce inherently virtual experiences, their transportive power is questioned, highlighting the image as reconstructed – through the presence of a glitch, illusion is broken, revealing the image-as-image. This thesis takes an interdisciplinary approach in which scientific images are analysed through the prism of photography’s relationship to reality, theories of vision and perception, representations of landscape, and digital and virtual image theory. At the heart of this thesis is the act of looking; critical and speculative writing is used to convey immersive encounters with images at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (USA); University College London’s Regional Planetary Imaging Facility; Airbus Defence and Space (UK); the photographic archive at the V&A; and the Panorama Mesdag (Netherlands). The research re-examines scientific forms of images against examples from the history of visual culture (be it art or popular culture) to draw parallels between different ways of seeing, representing and discovering the unknown. The eyes of the Mars rovers provide viewpoints through which we regard an alien terrain: windows upon unknown worlds. Rover images bridge a gap between what is known and unknown, between what is visible and invisible. The rover is our surrogate, an extension of our vision that portrays an intuitively comprehensible landscape. Yet this landscape remains totally out of reach, millions of miles away. This distance is an impenetrable boundary – both physically and metaphorically – that new technologies are trying to break. Mars, Invisible Vision and the Virtual Landscape offers a two-way impact, constituting a new approach to the relationship between real and imagined images in order to demonstrate that the real Mars, however it is represented and perceived, remains distant and detached.” (2017)

Eldridge, L. (2017) Mars, Invisible Vision and the Virtual Landscape: Immersive Encounters with Contemporary Rover Images. PhD thesis. Royal College of Art. Available at: (Accessed: 4 September 2018).

The Photography of Space Exploration, (exhibition catalogue, 1981)

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)

Colour chart on Viking Lander

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.

The Wanderer

The Ancient Greeks believed the other planets of our Solar System rotated around the Earth, they called these ‘Wandering Stars’, or ‘Wanderers’.

“We derive the word ‘planet’ from the Greek ‘planetes’, which means ‘a traveller’ or ‘a wanderer’. Whereas the stars kept their distances with respect to one another, and hence could be linked together to form constellations, the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn constantly changed their positions against the background stars, and this was why they were called wanderers, or planets.” (2014, p. 23)


Seymour, P. (2014) Astronomy: All That Matters.London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Shoot: 31st December 2017
Location: Kielder Forest


First Visit to Kielder Observatory

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.

Space Blankets and False Colour

“To acknowledge the human-made aspects of the deep space picture, the inevitable acts of individual conjecture and mediation involved in its creation, is thus to acknowledge the limits of human knowledge and perception.” (2013)

Photographic representations of starry skies evoke the imagination, but I wonder if there are alternate creative methods involving experiences of dark, immersive spaces where an audience might experience astronomy differently? Above are initial studio tests: I experimented with space blankets, the female form, flash lighting and colour gels. The saturated colour relates to the ‘false colour’ used in many Astrophotography images, the ‘space blanket’ his a lightweight material that coats exterior surfaces of spacecraft.

Ventura, A. (2013) ‘Pretty Pictures: The Use of False Color in Images of Deep Space’, InVisible Culture 19 (Fall).


‘Picturing the Cosmos: Hubble Space Telescope Images and the Astronomical Sublime’, Elizabeth A. Kessler.

The chapter ‘Translating Date into Pretty Pictures’ dissects the way ‘Astrophotography’ is ‘made’ from data, where data from ‘flexible image transport files’ (FITS) are downloaded from the Hubble Telescope before inputted into imaging programs such as ‘IRAF’ software or more recently via the ‘FITS Liberator’ plugin for Adobe Photoshop. Astrophotographers then work through a series of processes to render this data and ‘make visible’ areas of the data which lie beyond the electomagnetic spectrum.


The Electromagnetic Spectrum. Ultraviolet or Infrared light may be collected as data by the Hubble Telescope, but this is invisible to the human eye.

These processes include:

Building Composites –
stitching together multiple exposures that have been photographed with different filters.

Selecting Contrast –
 ‘revealing’ structures of the unseen such as nebula/gas clouds (some Astrophysicist’s match each pixel to lumen/light intensity data and have a closer association with nature)

Determining Colour – this isn’t scientifically assigned, although blue often characterises the least energy and red the most energy. Kessler repeatedly states that some astrophotography aesthetics are decided by ‘trained judgement’ or through a set of pre-determined algorithms associated with a particular institution.

Kessler cites: “It’s important to use a different color for each data set. Otherwise, distinct information from each of the data sets is lost.” (Rector et al., “Image-Processing Techniques for the Creation of Presentation-Quality Astronomical Images,” p. 609)

Cosmetics – known as ‘Cosmetic Cleaning’, where cloning within Adobe Photoshop removing stray cosmic rays and difference in background colour from composite blending. Interestingly, ‘diffraction spikes’ (rays of light caused by telescope optics) are often kept, or even added into images where they don’t exist, they appeal to the aesthetic contemplation of ‘starry skies’.

“Perception and representation, number and image, index and symbol–the hybridity of the Hubble images raises a question that haunts all scientific images: What is their relationship to the phenomena they purport to represent?” (2012, p. 128)

Screen shot 2017-11-20 at 17.12.15
Screenshot from The Hubble Heritage Project’s website.

Kessler makes useful links to existing philosopher and critical thinkers:

  • David Batchelor, Chromophobia. London:Reaktion Books, 2000
  • Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator” and The Arcades Project, p476 ‘
  • Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement. 1790.
  • Ansel Adams, The Negative (describes physical changes in photography: dodging and burning etc.)
  • William Mitchell, The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era, 1992. “[…] an interlude of false innocence has passed. Today, as we enter the post-photographic era, we must face once again the ineradicable fragility of our ontological distinctions between the imaginary and the real, and the tragic elusiveness of the Cartesian dream. We have indeed learned to fix shadows, but not to secure their meanings or to stabilize their truth values; they still flicker on the walls of Plato’s cave.” (p. 225)
  • Time Magazine, October 25, 1989, “150 Years of Photojournalism”. A modified image of Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon shows all seven astronauts, carrying the caption “A picture of something that never took place”.
  • Bruno Latour “reversible chain of transformations” – a series of changes that link messy phenomena in the world to a representation. (Latour, Pandora’s Hope, p71)

Kessler, E. A. (2012) Picturing the Cosmos: Hubble Space Telescope Images and the Astronomical Sublime. Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota Press.