- author — Paul Anderson
Would you like to take a photographic tour of the martian landscape? A tour taken via fine-art photographs that were once scientific images? Nicolai Howalt has curated such a tour using a set of robotic rover images taken from four National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) missions to Mars. The rover “photographers” were Opportunity, Spirit, Curiosity, and Perseverance. The photographic direction came, of course, from the NASA rover science teams. The book’s author, seeing their potential as fine art objects, chose a subset of these images, projected them onto light-sensitive monochromatic paper, and sequenced them in this new book. The results are pristine panoramic martian landscapes with a bit of a historic feel.
With the martian rusty red color removed, the landscapes become strangely familiar. They look like something we might see in an arid environment on Earth. The familiar forces of wind and water have apparently shaped this alien land just as they have done on Earth, texturing hills and valleys and stream beds. Some of the landscapes are even interrupted by the tracks of the very rover that took the picture.
As part of his artistic editing, Nicolai Howalt removed all rover appendages and shadows from these images before publishing them, creating crazy cutout shapes in their lower regions. From an aesthetic point of view, this subtraction creates an interesting negative space that strongly suggests, but does not reveal, the automaton. Man is here and yet not here.
Printing the images on silver halide paper has softened them, recalling an earlier photographic aesthetic. It makes one step back and think about them in a philosophical way. The author himself states:
“Stripped of their colors it is as if the black-and-white analogue process subtract the future from the images and connect them with the past. This association plays tricks on you, but it also offers a way of approaching the images as well as a way to interpret the stateless landscape, which we recognize but cannot place.”
And what of this stateless landscape? How will humanity behave when it reaches this orb in person? Will we carve it up into nation-states, complete with layers of property rights and legal entitlements? Will there be settlements littered across the surface? What kind of long-term impact will man have on the martian environment? These are questions that come to mind when paging through the book.
Exploring frontiers has always fired man’s imagination and inspired artistic work. Governmental organizations that explore frontiers, including NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the European Space Agency (ESA), reach out to artistic communities to connect their missions with the human experience. For example, NASA requires the inclusion of an Education and Public Outreach component in their programs, and the US National Science Foundation (NSF) similarly requires a Broader Impact component for proposals. These components can include artistic elements. Nicolai Howalt’s compilation and treatment of NASA’s Mars images are very much in line with this tradition. His compilation of images makes one think philosophically about the implications of space, other worlds, and the extension of man’s influence into space. The book also includes a witty poem and essay by Harald Voetmann that encourages the reader to think about celestial bodies in general, and cosmic indifference in particular.
The black-and-white images are printed on a cream-colored paper stock to give them an archival look, which is quite pleasing. They are printed as two-page spreads with a lot of white space surrounding them. The index at the back provides NASA references for downloading any or all of the source images, should you wish to try your own hand at processing them.
In summary, the author has curated a set of images from various NASA Mars rover missions, processed them as black-and-white fine art photographs, and printed them in book form. His process has transformed them from scientific records to aesthetically interesting images. This book should be of interest to those who ponder distant worlds or consider man’s place in the universe.
Paul Anderson is a photographer/digital artist, working in Hermosa Beach, CA
A Journey: The Near Future – Nicolai Howalt
Author: Nicolai Howalt (born in Copenhagen, Denmark, where he currently resides.)
Publisher: Fabrikbooks, Copenhagen, Denmark; © 2022
Texts: Foreword by Nicolai Howalt; poem and essay by Harald Voetmann; essay by Anja C. Andersen
Softcover, 34 x 25 cm, 80 pages, 30 illustrations; printed by Narayana Press, Denmark
Graphic Design: Rasmus Koch Studio