Examining the iconic and rediscovering the photography of space exploration in the context of the history of photography

(…) The writer, film maker, and photographer Michael Benson chose a different
approach in conveying the sense of light, scale and landscape in space exploration
photography. Benson researched and edited the still imagery that had been captured
and beamed back to earth by the robotic exploration of our solar system. Published
in 2003, Beyond, Visions of the Interplanetary Probes often displays rediscovered
photographs that have never been registered on a negative. The subject matter
is most of our solar system’s inner and outer planets, their Moons, asteroids and
the Sun. The images were taken by Earth and Moon orbiting, and interplanetary
robotic space probes like OrbView, Terra, Aqua, Galileo, Lunar Orbiter, Magellan,
Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO),Viking Orbiters and its landers, Near
Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR),Voyager and the Hubble Space Telescope.
Benson addresses his experience researching and editing the images. The
results of this became a kind of philosophical treatise on the history of the
photographic imaging systems used in these robotic probes. Benson’s ideas on
the nature of art in these images become relevant here:

 

I meditate on the fact that questions of authorship would tend to disqualify a space probe’s pictures from serious consideration as works of art—even though its scientific discoveries are undeniable, and attributed. Yet those same questions are very much present in the rarefied art-world air these days. Even Ansel Adams was only Ansel Adams part of the time. Like most photographers, he shot a lot of pictures and then selected those few that today constitute the work we connect with his name . . . What’s left is choice—cura­torship. And I would argue that these pictures qualify for another reason: their mysterious, Leonardoesque smile.

 

One can look at a range of Benson’s choices and make associations
between a probe’s photography and that of a photographic master. For example,
Voyager’s flyby of Jupiter takes on a modernist approach with its abstract colors
and organic shapes. Next, there is Magellan’s Minor White-like-exploration of
Venus. The Synthetic Aperture radar (SAR) imagery is all black-and-white,
and White only worked in black-and-white. Also, Magellan captured unusual
surface features, the quality of which are reminiscent to some of White’s more
interpretive work of objects and landscapes. And then there is the black-and­
white exploration of Mars by the Viking Orbiters and Mars Global Surveyors
that recalls the work of Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and Aaron Siskind.
Benson’s choices also reinforce the notion that the photography from space
exploration can be researched, edited and curated in a way that reflects the
artistic proclivities of an author-curator.

While Benson and (Michael) Light sought to convey various editorial approaches
to the aesthetic possibilities of robotic and astronaut space flight photography,
there are also artists who appropriate—take, borrow or are inspired by—space
exploration in combination with photography, its related imaging technologies
and even art. (…)

 

—Excerpt from page 322-322 of  the essay “Examining the iconic and rediscovering the photography of space exploration in the context of the history of photography,” by Michael Soluri (in Part II of the book Remembering the Space Age; Steven J. Dick, editor; NASA Office of External Relations History Division, 2008)

 

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