Michael Benson: landscape photographer with robots as assistants

August 2, 2008

This is interesting… Yesterday I went to see the photography exhibition by Michael Benson entitled ‘Beyond: Visions of the Interplanetary Probes’ with photos of planets in our Solar System and when I came home and switched on my TV (Arte and DW TV, mostly!) I’ve heard that NASA has again confirmed the existence of water on Mars. To be more precisely, some coolish robot (who is walking now through the Martian’s parks) actually found and tasted the soil sample containing water. I believe, this robot is now, after becoming a celebrity on Earth (and Mars!), pretty thirsty.

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Photo: Mars crater, NASA/JPL/Kineticon Pictures (c)

Michael Benson’s exhibition represents images he collected, processed and presented in his synonymous book; an ongoing project with images collected by robots in space; where he is using photos made during missions involving spaceships, orbiters or mini-cars such as Lunar, Voyager 1, Terra, Galileo, Cassini, Viking, Mariner 10, Pathfinder, Opportunity Rover and Spirit Rover, to name a few.

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Time-collapse sequence Voyager 1 to Jupiter, NASA (c)

Benson started his project in mid 90’s when browsing through the web has got another dimension with photographs published jointly with text on the web sites. I guess we all had a certain relief back then, because good text is the essence of a narrative quality but with photos and illustrated stuff very often we can say even more apart from wordz…

Michael Benson is a photographer, journalist, documentary filmmaker, writer and producer. He has graduated English and photography; and is well known for writing articles on Russian underground music scene between 1985 – 90 when the fall of communism just opened a scene that was secretly livin’ in basements and factory halls. I have to mention here that during his ‘Russian period’ he had oftenly collaborated with the acclaimed rock photographer Anton Corbijn. At the beginning of 90’s he moved to Slovenia where he was living till 2007. Benson now lives with his family in New York and is preparing a new book ‘Far Out’, intended to present a definitive look at contemporary astrophotography.

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Photo: Mimas over Saturn’s ring, NASA/JPL/Kineticon Pictures (c)

He says about his collection: ‘Compiling the pictures in the book Beyond: Visions of the Interplanetary Probes involved hundreds of hours spent combing through archives devoted to the landscape photography of the deep-space probes, both on-line and among the innumerable bound hard copies stored at NASA’s PIRF, or Planetary Image Resource Facility for southern Europe—which happens to be in the basement of a large research institute just outside the eternal city, in a vineyards-dominated suburb called Frescati.’

‘Most of these pictures came from extended on-line excursions along the image trajectories of various missions: for example, I went through every one of the many tens of thousands of shots taken by the two Voyager probes of the late 1970s and 1980s as they passed Jupiter and Saturn. Ensconced in that basement room in Frescati, surrounded by space-probe models and schoolroom-style globes of Venus and Mars, I also looked at every picture sent home by the two Viking orbiters that reached Mars in 1976, and every shot of the five mid-1960s Lunar Orbiters.’

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Photo: Io above Jupiter, NASA/JPL/CYCLOPS/U.Arizona/Kineticon Pictures (c)

‘It’s no doubt a rank cliché to call these little virtual jaunts through the Solar System “voyages of discovery”—but it’s also practically the only way to describe them. When you follow the image trajectory of a spacecraft that can send one picture to Earth every forty-eight seconds, you are in some senses on that journey, its long stretches of tedium periodically punctuated by moments of sheer amazement at the awesome unfolding planetary views. In the end I felt as though I had actually been a passenger on these interplanetary rides, certainly one of the most valuable experiences associated with the making of this book. If a part of that sensation was conveyed here (well, the amazement part, not the tedium part), I’m satisfied.’

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Photo: Endurance crater-Mars, Kineticon Pictures (c)

As a viewer of the exhibition I didn’t have any ‘artistic’ (if I may say so) expectations on it, I just thought it would be a documentary film situation to see something what we usually watch on telly via documentary program. Well, it turned out that I was very touched by the large format photographs and particularly by Benson’s processing technique. He didn’t force it in a way to use as many colorful effects as he could. His touch is very gentle, seems like he did only framing and sharpening, leaving the planets to speak for themselves. The first photographs I saw there were of panoramic format black / white technique showing the surface of Mars which amazed me totally because they look as a real bas relief. I had to approach them so close to convince myself that this is a photograph not a 3D object.

How can you present something so big as our Solar System on photograph?! Well, large format works pretty fine. How can you even perceive such greatness as the magnitude of Jupiter or Saturn, anyway?!

When dealing with colors Benson does it with respect to the ‘catched’ objects and ‘the camera man’ avoiding everything needlessly and what may be pure kitsch.

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Photo: Saturn’s rings, NASA/JPL/Kineticon Pictures (c)

He is definitely best in framing and several photos of Saturn’s rings with one of his 6 moons, the Mimos, made me feel warm at heart. But then seeing the greatness of Jupiter in comparison with his ‘small and shy’ moon Io at photograph ‘Jupiter’s moon Io rising’ was really something special, because it showed me that dramaturgy is not something characteristic only for human beings.

Those were the moments which were for me the highlights of the exhibition, but the best images in terms of landscape photography are absolutely the latest images from the Mars surface. I guess, Ansel Adams would enjoyed it too!

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Photo: volcano at Jupiter’s moon Io, U.Arizona/LPL/Kineticon Pictures (c)

For those of you who are goin’ to stop-by in hot Zagreb during your trip home from the Adriatic Sea in August, check out Michael Benson’s exhibition in the Gliptoteque (it’s on view till 21st August) or wait for 2009 to see it at the Smithsonian Space Museum in Washington.

p.s. This blog post today is dedicated to all Venuses, Jupiters, Marses, Ios, Europas, Moons, Mercurys, Saturns and Mimas in the blogosphere… for making thingz happen…

8 Comments
Michael Benson
August 22, 2008 @ 3:12 am

Hi Deborah, I was searching for an account of my traveling show in
the US when I “stumbled” on your very kind and thoughtful post.
Many thanks for the insightful response, it’s great to know that
such a discerning person liked what I put together. All best,
Michael Benson

Michael Benson
August 22, 2008 @ 5:12 am

Hi Deborah, I was searching for an account of my traveling show in the US when I "stumbled" on your very kind and thoughtful post. Many thanks for the insightful response, it’s great to know that such a discerning person liked what I put together. All best, Michael Benson

August 22, 2008 @ 6:15 am

Hi Michael, You really surprised me now… Thanks a lot for your
comment and for the exhibition that inspired me… great work…
Can’t wait for the next book! Keep the good work… Best…

August 22, 2008 @ 8:15 am

Hi Michael,

You really surprised me now…
Thanks a lot for your comment and for the exhibition that inspired me… great work…
Can’t wait for the next book!

Keep the good work…

Best…

sandy goulet
February 2, 2009 @ 6:24 pm

Hi Michael: this is an odd question: where can i order a copy of
the photograph from your article in the smithsonian, novemberm
2003, page 66, picture of the Great Lkes, taken by the OrbView-2
satelite. we live near cape cod nd love the picture. Thanks, Sandy

February 2, 2009 @ 8:24 pm

Hi Michael: this is an odd question: where can i order a copy of the photograph from your article in the smithsonian, novemberm 2003, page 66, picture of the Great Lkes, taken by the OrbView-2 satelite. we live near cape cod nd love the picture. Thanks, Sandy

February 2, 2009 @ 6:31 pm

hi sandy! try on this link: http://www.kinetikonpictures.com/ click
the contact info in the upper menu of the site that’s Michael
Benson’s publisher and PR… best, deborah

February 2, 2009 @ 8:31 pm

hi sandy!
try on this link: http://www.kinetikonpictures.com/
click the contact info in the upper menu of the site
that’s Michael Benson’s publisher and PR…

best,

deborah

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