Other Worlds: Visions of our Solar System opens at the Natural History Museum tomorrow and brings together 77 images of interstellar landscapes, from frozen dunes on Mars to lunar craters and volcanoes on Venus.
Photographs offer a look at geographical features as well as natural phenomena such as hurricanes, eclipses and dust storms: there’s an image of a typhoon forming over the Bay of Bengal and another of a specular reflection casting a warm golden glow over the Caribbean. There are also shots of thick storm clouds with flattened tops in the tropopause (the boundary between the troposphere and the stratesphere) over Senegal and Mali, and dense plumes of smoke caused by deforestation rising into the atmosphere above Mexico.
The show also emphasises the diversity of different landscapes in our solar system. Images of the moon show craters more than 100km wide, while Mars’ desert like-surface is littered with rocks. Some pictures aim to give a sense of scale – in one, Mercury is dwarfed by a fiery, glowing sun – while others show the beautiful colours and cloud patterns found on the surface of Saturn, Jupiter and Uranus.
Benson, an artist, photographer and film-maker, creates images using photographs taken by space probes and rovers on Mars and by astronauts on board the International Space Station.
After selecting data from NASA and the ESA’s public archives, he creates ‘mosaics’ of landscapes by stitching together individual frames, or colour composites using images shot through different filters. The raw data is usually black-and-white, with colours added in Photoshop.
“If you want a colour image of [unmanned spacecraft] Cassini orbiting Saturn, for example, you have to get at least two but preferably three black-and-white frames shot through different filters – red, green and blue, if you’re lucky – and then you can make a colour composite and play with that until you get it to look right,” he says.
“More frequently than not, though, you’ll get something like red, infrared and ultraviolet. …Then there’s the difficult and complicated task of trying to get the filters to work correctly. Sometimes you just can’t do it, so either you leave it as a black-and-white image … or you move on and look for other data sets that will work,” he adds.
When adding colour, Benson says he tries to remain as true to life as possible. Some shades appear a little more saturated than they would in real life but the end result is always largely accurate. “I use your standard darkroom techniques – though now it’s in Photoshop – to make the images work as fine art prints, but I don’t go beyond a certain subjective level where I falsify things,” he says. “I think that’s important with this type of work because we haven’t experienced any of these places ourselves, and they are beyond the realm of direct human experience – we still have to send probes or rovers to see them – so I’m trying to convey what they might look like if we could go there.”
Alongside brightly coloured photographs of Earth, Mars and the Sun are some stunning radar images of Venus. The detailed black-and-white shots look almost like pencil drawings and show a surface marked with craters and volcanoes. They were gathered during the US Magellan mission in the 1990s, when a spacecraft was sent to orbit the planet from above and map its surface, producing images around 10 times clearer than those gathered on previous Soviet missions. (Data also provided new evidence about Venus’ age and showed geographical features such as lava channels measuring several thousand kilometres).
“They’re the only images in the show that are not visible light or close to visible light but I found them so interesting, I had to include them,” says Benson. “Venus has a very dense cloud cover all the time, so it’s really hard to capture it unless you have radar.”
Benson first became fascinated with space as a child in the 1960s, when US astronauts were making man’s first steps on the moon. He also cites Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as an early source of inspiration. “That’s a masterpiece of film, obviously … and from an early age, Kubrick and [author Arthur C. Clarke] brought home to me that some of the great existential questions: what are we doing in the universe? what is our destiny, and where did we come from? and all those themes dealt with in the film are inextricably entwined with cosmic imagery,” he says.
Creating images is a painstaking process, often involving days or weeks of editing. “Typically, it’ll be three or four days but it depends on how many individual frames [there are] and how ambitious I’m being with it,” he says.
“One of the images of Mars in the show took a week because there were lots of different frames to assemble, and when I get it to a level where I’m happy with, I’ll usually let it set for a few hours, then come back in with a coffee and realise, ‘oh, there are some issues I have to clean up.’ Preparing it for printing is another phase, as getting it on chromogenic paper can be a challenge – making sure it looks organic, in the sense that you don’t see a grid of digital data, and so it looks almost as if it was shot on film.”
Benson spends a great deal of time trawling archives to find new material, as well as following current missions in space. The raw images which form the basis for Other Worlds date from the 1960s to 2015.
“There’s a blog I sometimes look at called Unmanned Space Flight … and when [space probe] New Horizons was going past Pluto, for example, I was at Johns Hopkins University [which launched the probe] talking to the imaging team. There are many different ways to get clued in to what’s happening but sometimes, it’s just a case of going through every shot in an archive over a period of weeks – especially if I have a deadline or a book project,” he explains.
When it comes to what makes for an interesting data set, Benson says it can be anything from good lighting to unusual textures or shots that give a sense of the vastness of the solar system.
“Sometimes you’ll get a lovely afternoon or evening lighting situation from the Mars rover images – it’s the same as what photographers look for on Earth, when the light is near the horizon and creates interesting effects and shadows,” he adds. “I’m also a sucker for a shot of a moon orbiting past a planet.”
The exhibition is a visual treat and Benson’s images are particularly beautiful up close. Visitors can choose to listen to a soundtrack composed by Brian Eno or an audio commentary featuring insights from experts while touring the show. It’s a fascinating collection of images, offering a look at parts of the solar system in a whole new light.
“It’s extraordinary. There are moments in my work when I realise that I’m probably the first human being on earth to see something the way someone would see it if they were to go there,” says Benson. “I’m not the first person to see the raw black-and-white material, of course, because planetary scientists and engineers have seen that, but they haven’t necessarily taken the time or effort to assemble the images into a colour composite – or at least, I doubt it has been done with the care that I take to make sure that it works as a photograph.”
Other Worlds opens at the Natural History Museum on January 22 until May 15 2016. For visitor details and opening times see nhm.ac.uk
Images courtesy of Flowers Gallery