Curating the Cosmos

Calling Michael Benson a curator of interplanetary spaceflight imagery only touches upon what he actually does.

 “Curatorship is one of the roles I play in relation to these images,” began Benson via email. “I would divide my roles into curatorship, meaning a sifting through tens of thousands of raw frames in effect panning for gold; then image processing: compositing and mosaicking the raw frames to make final images frequently from dozens or even hundreds of raw frames, then optimizing for print and finally exhibiting the results in various venues.”

The seemingly infinite number of frames seem appropriate for a man who is dealing with, after all, the infinite subject of space.

Benson entered the world of space photography in the early 1990s after working as a photographer and journalist and attending NYU graduate school to study film.

“I started to get increasingly fascinated by the way Web and online archives had suddenly—explosively—democratized access to the ever-growing archives where raw spacecraft data is amassed.”

He began writing about it and digging for extraordinary images, which eventually led to books and gallery shows.

His latest show, Planetfall: New Solar System Visions, is currently on view at Hasted Kraeutler in New York City through March 9 and will travel to the American Association for the Advancement of Science on March 27 in Washington, D.C.

Benson has seen a lot of images since he began working in this genre more than two decades ago and has been impressed with discoveries, both of space exploration and with the technology used to capture the images.

“The fact is that in the last six decades we have for the first time in history become aware of other landscapes under the sun,” explained Benson. “That’s pretty amazing and revelatory. … We belong to a vast suite of solar-powered, sun-orbiting landscapes, some almost surreal, some recognizably like the deserts and ice caps and even lakes of Earth. It’s a kind of kinetic archipelago.”

Technology-wise, one of the most important advancements in Benson’s mind is the camera system in orbit of Mars operating since 2006. “That’s the equivalent of what a spy satellite might carry in Earth’s orbit, only here sent to another world,” Benson wrote. The camera used is a HiRISE on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, “which has a 19.7-inch aperture, allowing it to take images of the surface of Mars of about 1 foot per pixel—good enough to get shots of our three rovers on the surface, for example, or even high-quality images of follow-on spacecraft descending to the Martian surface under parachutes.” Many of the images can be found in Planetfall.”

Although impressed with the Mars imagery, he went on: the “Jupiter system has always been a place I come back to, so to speak, for the endless variety of belted storm clouds on the face of the biggest planet but also the sci-fi strangeness of its four large moons, two of which are about the size of planet Mercury,” wrote Benson.

With a bit of luck, Benson is able to create color composite imagery. In this case, “luck” means a minimum of two exposures of the same subject shot though both a red and blue filter needed to begin the process of creating a color image (sometimes a third image is taken through a green filter; other times a synthetic green image can be made). Benson attempts to create an accurate representation of the final image, though he states this can be tricky:

“At least with this particular subject matter, I usually try to give as accurate a representation as possible of what the human eye might see if we could travel to these places ourselves,” Benson emphasized. “When I have achieved that, which can take some doing, I then apply the standard techniques of photography and print making to try to get extraordinary final results out of the material.”

“The only way to show or even purport to show the solar system with any accuracy with our existing tools and date streams is to engage in a significant amount of image processing … otherwise, you get very pixelated black-and-white material that’s usually not even very readable, let alone compelling.”

For his next project, Benson will in essence be working within a completely different spectrum.

“I’m not just a space freak,” Benson said. “My next project is called ‘Nanocosmos’ and will involve electron microscope photography, so I’ll be checking out topographies at the other end of the size scale.”

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