/ Mapping the Sublime: Thomas Ruff and Dan Holdsworth
Art and science are divided into distinct camps, but, as photographers know, in practice they can be hard to separate. Making photographic images depends on using a recording device; even so, the recordings, and the way they’re interpreted, are shaped by culturally and historically specific values. This spring two exhibitions in London explored this area, using 21st century spins on the classic genre of landscape photography – Thomas Ruff’s ma.r.s., at Gagosian Britannia Street from 08 March – 21 April, and Dan Holdsworth’s Transmission: New Remote Earth Views, at Brancolini Grimaldi from 23 March – 19 May.
As the name implies, Ruff’s ma.r.s shows images of Mars, made using photographs taken by the high-resolution camera on NASA’s Mars Renaissance Orbiter. The large prints show alien yet eerily familiar contours and ravines, some of which are emphasised with 3D colour separation. All is not what it seems. Although the images are made using NASA’s data, Ruff has intervened in their perspective, colour and texture, putting his mark on apparently objective data. By doing so, he argues, he’s only emphasising the interpretation that goes into all images of outer space. Most of the shots of Mars are sent to Earth in black-and-white because colour files are too large, for example; NASA technicians then “process” them to create sensational images which inform us about the universe and NASA’s work in it, and help justify the organisation’s public funding.
“When I started working on those images I asked NASA why they don’t take colour photographs, and they responded it’s a problem of getting the data back down to earth,” Ruff told me in an interview for the British Journal of Photography. “They have preview images in colour, so I asked ‘Are those images Photoshopped?’ and they said ‘No, they’re not Photoshopped they’re “processed”,’ whatever that means. Even they don’t know the truth in colour – it’s just a kind of ‘probably’. The NASA camera does capture small areas in infrared and RGB, so they use swaps [to extrapolate those areas onto a larger image], or statistics, or what the scientists say, but you cannot be sure that the colours are true. To make those images not look too strange they look at oil paintings, and give them colours that are real or familiar.
“So that’s what I do with the ma.r.s images. Sometimes I’m looking at these swaps and I colour the whole image, but sometimes I say ‘Coloured space is nonsense’ and I do as I want. I work more or less intuitively – I don’t have a vision of Mars. It’s more playing around, experimenting with colours, and what could fit with this kind of surface. The impact craters have to be more dark and sand dunes have to be more shiny, for example.” As Ruff adds in an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist published in the exhibition catalogue, the ma.r.s photographs are both realistic and fictional – and the 3D images add an aspect of the absurd “in the fact that you can actually recognise deep relief on the surface of another planet with cheap 3D glasses”.
Ruff’s reference to oil paintings echoes observations made by Dr Elizabeth Kessler, assistant professor of art and liberal studies at Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, whose book Picturing the Cosmos: The Hubble Space Telescope Images and the Astronomical Sublime, will be published in November. Kessler traces the links between Hubble Space Telescope images and the paintings and photographs of the American West made during the Romantic era, pointing out that astronomers choose the colour, contrast and composition of images of space and arguing that their aesthetic decisions are influenced by these early landscapes.
“While astronomers don’t consciously set out to make Hubble images that look like 19th-century landscape paintings and photographs, they do recognise and even encourage the connection,” she stated in an interview with New Scientist published on 30 April 2010. “Press releases often suggest a similarity. The physical processes that formed the Eagle nebula were compared with the erosion of buttes in the American south-west. The Cone nebula was described as a ‘craggy-looking mountain-top of cold gas and dust’.”
British artist Dan Holdsworth is familiar with both Kessler’s work and the 19th century art and photography she references, and both have fed into his latest series, Transmission: New Remote Earth Views. Showing the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Mount Shasta, Mount St. Helens and Salt Lake City, his images evoke Carleton Watkins’ ground-breaking shots of Yosemite but, as with Ruff’s ma.r.s. series, these images are not what they first seem. Made in collaboration with the United States Geological Survey, these “photographs” are actually digital renditions of laser scans of the Earth’s surface. Close inspection reveals they have the curious plastic feel of video-game landscapes, and Holdsworth has included a stack of printouts in the exhibition, showing the data from which the renditions were extrapolated.
Like Ruff’s images, and like Watkins’ earlier photographs, Holdsworth’s series reveals both the fantastical universe in which we live and the art (and science) of depicting it. For the Romantics such sights were awe-inspiring because they were Sublime – great beyond human conception, calculation, measurement or imitation. For Holdsworth and Ruff, it seems, some of these limits remain, despite the advances in image technology.