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Photographer Michael Benson Talks Astronomy, Infinity, and Existential Crises

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The Ultraviolet Sun, Trace, July 30, 1999 [2010]

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Enceladus Geysers Water into Space, Cassini, December, 25, 2009 [2012]

I don’t have to say how much I love Michael Benson’s work. These photographs were pulled together from NASA and ESA space probes. They are composites of two or more black-and-white images that have been mosaicked through Benson’s own computer work. They are pictures of how we see the universe, not the universe itself. What I see in them is a hunger for beauty in an infinity of space. That’s the greatest mystery. No matter how violent and strange the universe, at the heart of us is beauty.

How would you describe your work?
“Over the last decade or more, my work has been all about the conjunction of science and art. So, for example, I’ve been making the case that, apart from its scientific significance, the visual legacy of over fifty years of robotic exploration of the solar system constitutes an important chapter in the history of photography. Which in turn allows an investigation into what you might call its existential significance, let’s say, which is the traditional domain of art. Of course, it’s both art and science, and that’s part of the point. Photography itself has been the result of centuries of research into the mechanisms of perception, and of optics, and so forth. So even the medium of its conveyance is a fusion of art and science. I suppose all of that makes it very much of its time, given the hyper-technologized world we inhabit.

“My latest project is titled Nanocosmos. I’m using a SEM, or scanning electron microscope, to examine natural design at sub-millimeter scales. It’s pretty incredible stuff, or at least, I’m amazed by the power of the instrument to peer into microns-sized intricacy. Last summer, I spent six weeks simply moving around and essentially surveying a two-centimeter-wide sample stub in the vacuum chamber of the SEM at the Center for Bits and Atoms (this is at the MIT Media Lab, where I’m a ‘visiting scholar’ these days). On top of the stub was a sprinkling of radiolarian skeletons—the highly complex, architectonic silica remains of single-celled marine organisms. Anyway, there must have been twenty-five or so of them on that single stub, and I roamed among them for weeks using that electron beam, feeling kind of like a tourist in Monument Valley.”

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Europa and Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, Voyager 1, March 3, 1979 [2003]

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Full Jupiter and Io, Cassini, December 9, 2000 [2012]

When did your curiosity about space-time merge with your photographic pursuits? How did that first happen?
“Well, one story I’ve told before is that my mind was blown at the age of six when my mom took me to see 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, the year it came out. I remember following her down Broadway afterward—you know, with that ‘Star Child’ sequence still vividly in my mind—wailing, ‘But what did it mean?’ To which she replied, to her credit, ‘I don’t know!’ Now, I mention that story here in response to your question because effectively my curiosity about space-time and my very awareness of photographic pursuits (because apart from everything else, 2001 remains about as astonishing an example of photographic pursuits as you could ever come across) all started at the same time and place, and that was with Kubrick’s masterpiece. They were all implicated with each other.”

“Then much later, in the late 1990s, after a lot of different photography-based projects, I was kind of stymied in my pursuit of a second feature-length documentary, a global road move titled More Places Forever. I had part of it shot, the rest was stalled, and I had run out of money. It was the early days of the Internet, and as a kind of diversion from my film troubles, I started to use it to go on what were in effect self-directed voyages of space exploration, by using the images that NASA was already then putting on the web. At first, I looked at their official releases, then eventually I discovered archives of raw image data—places accessed almost exclusively by planetary scientists. And I started collecting the most extraordinary images, and also writing about this quixotic, admittedly oddball activity. And later I learned how to combine raw frames to achieve color composites and also to mosaic them to get wider field views.”

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Mars and The Milky Way, Rosetta, December 3, 2006 [2012]

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Mimas Above Saturn’s Rings and Shadows, Cassini, November, 7, 2004 [2012]

Could you give us a general approximation of how you complete an image from start to finish? On average, how long does it take to finish one?
“If we’re talking about SEM images, I’m still establishing a production path to a completed image. But if we’re talking about planetary landscapes, it’s basically not that complicated. All of the raw image data is in black and white, because the spacecraft will typically take multiple shots of a given subject through different filters. Some of which are the traditional red, green, and blue of visible light. Others can be well outside the visible spectrum, like ultraviolet or infrared, for example. But until they are processed, they’re just black-and-white frames. In order to get a true color image of a planet, which is kind of the baseline if the goal is in fact a color print, the spacecraft has to have taken, at minimum, two images of the target area, through two filters. Let’s say, they are red and blue. In that case, the green filter can be interpolated, or mixed from the red and blue, creating a synthetic green. But ideally, three images are taken. They look like black-and-white images in their original form, but they’ve been taken through filters that can be composited to make an RGB color shot. This can get complicated, because they have to be aligned precisely, and frequently the spacecraft was going faster than a rifle bullet when it took the shots, and so viewing geometries might have changed. So there are various hoops you have to jump through in order to get everything to work correctly, and in many cases the filter combinations are less than ideal, requiring various techniques to get them to produce a reasonably true color shot.

“From there, of course, there is the mosaicking process, which can take quite some time. Some of my images have mosaicked together several hundred individual color shots that were first composited using the above technique. So some of the images truly took weeks of work, or at least, many days.”

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Mimas Transits Saturn’s Ring Shadows, Cassini, January 18, 2005 [2012]

What does this Heisenberg quote mean to your work: “We have to remember that what we see is not nature herself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” What importance do you see in contextualizing your work with it?
“Well, setting aside certain dubious actions during the war, Heisenberg was of course a genius, and apart from scientific theory, he had a gift for putting our situation into clear perspective in simple, easily grasped words. Another related quote that I used in my latest book, Cosmigraphics—which looks at 4000 years of our attempts to represent the universe graphically—is: ‘Contemporary thought is endangered by the picture of nature drawn by science. This danger lies in the fact that the picture is now regarded as an exhaustive account of nature itself so that science forgets that in its study of nature it is studying its own picture.’
So we’re talking the study of pictures here, right? And that’s an interesting way to look at photography as a genre, and the arts in general. Though, with art we’re trying to get at truths using what in effect are falsehoods. A photograph is just a piece of chemically treated paper, even if it provides a window to somewhere else.

“When it comes to these planetary images, there are several levels of disbelief suspension. As soon as we move beyond the Earth and Moon, no human being has ever seen these subjects directly—the images we have are provided by extremely distant, remote-controlled extensions of our optic nerves, so to speak. The most distant cameras ever deployed, in fact. In establishing the color and visual texture of Mars, or Jupiter or Saturn, we rely entirely on the evidence of those robot emissaries—we’re ghosts in the machine. So it’s nature exposed to our method of questioning, pure and simple.”

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Northern View of Saturn and the Darker Side of The Rings, Cassini, May 9, 2007 [2012]

While looking through all the hundreds of thousands photographs NASA and ESA have taken, you must have developed a system to categorizing your interests. When did you know you had found something compelling? What guided your search?
“Oh, I haven’t looked at all of them, god knows, though certainly a large percentage. Usually, it’s just clear when something particularly extraordinary is being captured. In my lifetime, we as a species have expanded our space-time field hugely, absolutely vastly. The field in which we operate is simply gigantically larger. And yet this fact is only dimly appreciated by the vast majority of people. Let alone it’s larger implications. And that’s because the data is mostly being channeled down a handful of conduits, it’s trickling towards very specialized research establishments. But it belongs to all of us as a species.”

Tim Connor at the New York Photo Review made an argument that you might have, either subconsciously or consciously, curated your images to bring attention to the sacredness of life when compared to the dark, cold, and violent infinity of space-time. Would you agree with what he said? What curatorial objectives did you have other than creating something interesting?
“Well, I’m not sure it’s for me to say. Because people should bring their own insights to it. Though, I wouldn’t deny that there’s a kind of spiritual component to what I do. By the way life is inconceivable without the crucible of that dark, cold, and violent infinity, which is also bright, and hot, and so forth, at least in places, with all of it together in 13.7-billion-year suspension creating conditions for life here, and almost certainly in countless billions of other places across space-time. As to curatorial objectives, I think it’s important that we look up from our selfies and cities and scandals and beheadings and air strikes and all that, and truly see the far wider horizon that has been opened up to us by our technologies, which we’ve developed over millennia. A horizon above the horizon, so to speak. In fact, our remote sensing also allows us to see how thoroughly illusory the terrestrial horizon is. It’s simply an artifact of our Earth-bound position.”

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Sun on The Pacific, Iss 007 Crew, July 21, 2003 [2012]

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Sunset on Mars, Spirit Rover, May 19, 2005 [2012]

Your vision of these alien environments will forever color how millions of people see the universe. It’s an incredible position to be in. How you ever thought about this? Have any of your images greatly affected you emotionally?
“Well, I think millions is an exaggeration, regretfully. But of course I’m glad that Abrams, my publisher, has backed me in these projects. And the same goes for Hasted Kraeutler gallery. By the way, I’m also hoping to have a large museum show in London next spring, though I can’t disclose the details yet.”

“Have I thought about it? Sure, but my baseline is that first I have to be pleased with the results, and then I can hope others will find what I’m working on as interesting as I do.
Have the images affected me emotionally? Absolutely. I’m not doing this work for abstract reasons. For example, years ago, I was methodically going through innumerable single black-and-white frames taken by Voyager 1 as it flew by Jupiter in 1979, almost flip-book style, when suddenly Jupiter’s moon Europa appeared in a frame, floating in front of the swirling clouds of its parent planet. And then I saw I could assemble multiple frames to create a panoramic composite view of this sight. It was probably 1 AM in central Europe at the time. I was alone, and staring at the screen. I remembered Keats’ poem, the one with the lines: ‘Then felt I like some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken.’ It was amazing.”

“And you know, various NASA engineers and planetary scientists had gone over the individual frames that I later assembled to make this final composite image. But typically they didn’t have the time or inclination to put those puzzle-pieces together, because they weren’t after expansive views. So I believe I was the first to really see that sight, the first human being to see it in that way. And that’s part of what has driven me to work with these data sets—not just to be the first to see these things, but to transmit them through books and prints so others can see them, too. Planetary scientists go into those archives looking for data that conforms to their work objectives, confirming their theories about Jupiter, or Europa, or Saturn’s rings, or what have you. And I go in for my own obscure reasons, which bear little resemblance to theirs.”

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Titan in Front of Saturn’s Rings and Limb, Cassini, May 21, 2011 [2012]

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Titan’s Atmosphere, Cassini, March 31, 2005 [2011]

What have you learned in looking through all these images? Any epiphanies? Have you experienced anything close to what astronauts call the overview effect?
“Well, I just described one of those epiphanies, but there have been many, actually. And thankfully there are new ones now, with the electron microscope project I’m currently working on, though now I’m getting into microspace. But I think you nailed it, actually, because it’s really all about the overview effect. Tt’s kind of an echo and extension of that effect. For me the overview effect started with the opening sequence of 2001, which is to say that Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke anticipated it by nine months. Because the first time human beings actually saw Earthrise over the Moon was in December of 1968, with Apollo 8. And 2001 came out in April of that year.”

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Uranus With Rings, Voyager, January 24, 1986 [2010]

All images © Michael Benson

Read Freddy Martinez’s entire interview with Michael Benson in its entirety over on PhotoWhoa.

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