Planet Suite

After years of pursuing digital perfection, photographer Jenny van Sommers’ latest project uses some distinctly old-fashioned techniques to realise a long-held obsession with our solar system

“Nicola poked it with a stick.” That’s the hi-tech explanation of how set designer Nicola Yeoman and photographer Jenny van Sommers recreated the surface of the sun out of poly styrofoam in van Sommers’ latest project, The Planets.

Known for her beautiful still life photography, van Sommers says that “since shooting so much in digital over last few years I’ve become a bit bored of perfection”. For this project, she says, “I thought it would be much more interesting to make the images more handmade and do as much as possible in camera”.

Van Sommers says that she has long been “obsessed” by the solar system. “As a kid in Australia, I once went to the science museum to watch a Nasa mission. I was about 17 – there was a whole bunch of little boys all sitting watching it, and me.”

To create their own planet suite, van Sommers and Yeoman turned to the worlds of ornamental gardening, upholstery, and hi-fi in their resolutely lo-fi approach. “They were all done on the cheap with lots of cheesy special effects,” van Sommers says of the series of images.

For the sun, Yeoman cut a hemisphere from poly styrofoam and sprayed it with oil-based paint. This began to eat away at the material which, with the addition of a strong orange light behind, began to create the appearance of the molten solar surface. Once Yeoman had stepped in with her stick, a convincing image emerged.

Less violent was the creation of the moon: a light from Habitat that Yeoman painted with ‘craters’. As with all the images, a starry background was created by poking holes through a piece of black, backlit foam core board.

For Jupiter and Saturn, a trip to the garden centre proved helpful with an ornamental stone sphere featuring in each image. For Jupiter, van Sommers downloaded
a lo-res image of the planet’s surface from the internet and projected it onto the sphere, the pixilated result only adding to the appeal in her opinion: “It felt like it could have been a telescope composite or something,” she says. The creation of Saturn was probably the most complex process of the project. The stone sphere made a passable stand-in for the planet itself but the famous rings required something more inventive. Van Sommers covered her turntable in black cloth and painted a 3cm ‘pie-slice’ of a vinyl record with lines. Then she pressed ‘play’ and shot the spinning record on a long exposure. The resultant rings were comped together with the stone sphere to make the final image.

Look closely at any of her planets and their earthly origins are revealed: they are purposefully a little bit shonky and that’s what gives them their charm. Van Sommers draws a parallel with the Star Wars films, of which she is an avowed fan. Which has more appeal, she asks, the famous Cantina scene from the first film in which a bunch of extras in rubber suits play a series of none-too-convincing but nevertheless charming alien ne’er do wells or Jar Jar Binks, the incredibly annoying CGI character from The Phantom Menace?

I guess the answer is that both routes can produce interesting images but the fun that van Sommers and Yeoman had in creating this set is evident in the final result. The full set will feature on CR’s forthcoming iPad app.


If you enjoyed this article you’ll probably be interested in Planet Tozer, a specially commissioned photography project by Jason Tozer for Creative Review and Sony, where Tozer created ‘gas giants’ from soap bubbles.

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