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Portraying the James Webb telescope is like documenting the construction of the pyramids

The Canadian comedian Norm Macdonald described with the right words a characteristic of our time: “Years ago, at most, a person could have in his entire life one photo of himself … In 50 years, on the other hand Someone will say: Hey, do you want to see 100,000 pictures of my great-grandfather … and everything he did every day of his life?

The current generations are the most portrayed in the entire history of mankind. Even thanks to ultrasound, you can have images before birth. The omnipresence of cameras – on mobile phones, computers, street corners, supermarkets, parking lots, everywhere – made it possible to document the existence of an individual in every minute, hour and day of their life.

This full record, however, does not apply solely to humans. It also affects our most lavish creations. For more than ten years, Chris Gunn has documented the life stages – birth, childhood, adolescence and maturity – of the next great jewel of science: the James Webb Space Telescope ( JWST [ 19459006]).

El fotógrafo Chris Gunn se da una ducha descontaminante antes de entrar al centro de construcción del telescopio James Webb

Before entering the clean room where the James Webb Space Telescope was built, Gunn goes through an “air shower”. These white suits protect the telescope from contaminants such as clothing, hair, and skin. / NASA / Chris Gunn

“The NASA mission is closely linked to visual impact,” this 51-year-old American photographer tells SINC. “The images of the missions to the Moon are iconic, like the photograph Earthrise taken by the Apollo 8 astronauts or the footprints on the lunar surface. And those of the universe that Hubble gave us are inspiring. These photographs are evidence. It is important to illustrate and record what we achieve ”.

In his case, his images capture the beauty of science and technology. They incite wonder and encourage curiosity, as well as record for posterity the work and effort of the men and women who build the cathedrals of our time: space observatories like “the Webb” —the largest and most powerful space telescope built to date. date, a collaboration between NASA, ESA, and the Canadian space agency— which will eventually, if unchanged, jump into orbit on December 22 aboard an Ariane 5 rocket from the spaceport in Kourou , French Guiana.

When stationed 1.5 million kilometers from Earth – at what is known as “Lagrange point 2”, a gravitationally stable site – the successor to Hubble will give us a new vision of the universe .

Portraying the James Webb telescope is like documenting the construction of the pyramids

It had never occurred to me to make a living from this because I didn’t see many African-American people in the scientific field

Portraying the James Webb telescope is like documenting the construction of the pyramids

How did you arrive at this work of documenting the construction of this artifact that will investigate the dawn of the cosmos and observe exoplanets and their atmospheres like never before?

It was a long road. Ever since I was given a camera at the age of nine, I have always had a passion for photography. After working at a law firm for a while, I did what all photographers do: I took portraits, worked for a newspaper, photographed politicians and hip hop artists. But I felt like it wasn’t my thing.

One day I found in The Washington Post an advertisement from NASA. They were looking for a corporate photographer. At first it was a very boring job. For six years I took group photographs, meetings, award ceremonies, everything. So someone asked me to join the latest maintenance mission for the Hubble telescope. NASA likes to document everything. There I said: “This is what I want to do.”

I felt my childhood love for science and engineering resurface. It had never occurred to me to make a living from this until then, because I didn’t see many people like me or my family, that is, African Americans, in the scientific field. When I started taking photos of engineers and astronauts, I found myself. And that led me in 2009 to join the Webb team.

In his photographs, the telescope looks majestic, like Michelangelo’s David. It was always like this?

No. At first, its structure was not very impressive. Then the first golden mirror arrived at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, USA. “Wow!” I thought. “Now we have something that is visually stunning.” And then more and more came. There I really appreciated the scale of this scientific project. And I began to take photos with a mission: to convey to people the same feelings that I had when I was in front of him or every time he entered what was my photographic studio for almost a decade, an aseptic room or clean room , the largest clean room of its kind in the world. It was as if he was documenting the construction of the Egyptian pyramids or the Enterprise ship from Star Trek .

Portraying the James Webb telescope is like documenting the construction of the pyramids

For ten years I have watched the Webb come to life into the massive observatory it is today. The technicians who do the hard work got excited at every stage. I have seen grown men cry

Portraying the James Webb telescope is like documenting the construction of the pyramids

In a sense, this 6-ton infrared observatory named after the NASA administrator who was instrumental in the political engineering of the Apollo moon landings, is quite a time machine, since it could get to clarify the origin of the galaxies. What was it like to see for the first time the deployment of your primary mirror, a honeycomb with 18 hexagonal segments?

It was a very strong emotion. I felt like a boy. The whole team was excited. I knew in that moment that I had to take the best photos of my life, document something monumental, capture its beauty. For 10 years, I have watched this artifact come to life, grow into the massive observatory it is today. The technicians, that is, the ones who do the hard work, got excited at every stage. I have seen grown men cry.

Is capturing those reactions a challenge? These men and women are only seen in white suits.

But you can see your eyes. And the eyes count for a lot. The main protagonist of my photos is the telescope, of course. Technicians and engineers appear as secondary and neutral characters: gender, ethnicity, age are not appreciated. I still look forward to telling their stories. They are not usually very prominent by NASA or ESA. They are like mechanics or those who make car engines. It is not usually talked about them or they, the ones who tighten the screws.

Varios técnicos trabajan con el James Webb

Although the telescope is the protagonist of his images, Chris Gunn rescues the work of the technicians. “They are like mechanics or those who make car engines,” he says. You don’t usually talk about them or them, the ones who tighten the screws ”. / NASA / Chris Gunn

As well as the individuals who built the pyramids in Egypt. How did the repeated postponements of its release affect you? The date has already been postponed five times.

When you think about it, you realize that they were necessary for the mission to be a complete success. I am very jealous of the telescope: every time I hear someone complain that it cost a lot to do it or that it is a waste of money, I reply: “Have you seen the telescope?” It is one of the wonders of the modern world: it will be the largest telescope to be sent into space, it will change the world of astronomy and how we see the universe. It has countless moving parts, it must be tested to death on Earth. Nothing like this has ever been assembled before. So we are very excited about the launch.

Portraying the James Webb telescope is like documenting the construction of the pyramids

The Webb is a collective dream. That’s what I’m trying to convey: the idea that human thoughts can create almost anything. I am amazed by what I see and I want to convey that feeling

Portraying the James Webb telescope is like documenting the construction of the pyramids

What feelings do you seek to convey with your photographs?

I like to get people who aren’t particularly interested in science, like my daughter and my wife, to say “wow!” And who want to know more about the subject. I seek to convey amazement and curiosity about this wonder that someone once dreamed of and that is now a reality. The Webb is a collective dream: one person could not have built it. That’s what I’m trying to convey: the idea that human thoughts can create almost anything. I am amazed by what I see and my wish is to convey that feeling.

The American historian Perry Miller coined the term “techno-sublime” to describe a sense of wonder and excitement at technology. Your telescope images fuel these emotions. What were your sources of inspiration?

I love science fiction and watched my favorite movies over and over again to imitate the lighting, the framing, the composition. For example, the use of symmetry in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey .

Dos operarios trabajan con el telescopio espacial James Webb

The photographer was inspired by the aesthetics of science fiction films to photograph James Webb. / NASA / Chris Gunn

Speaking of which, you could say that in your images the telescope resembles the black monolith in Arthur Clarke’s work, right?

Yes, but made by human beings and not by an alien civilization. I wanted the images to look like a science fiction movie. So for the lighting I was very inspired by the atmosphere of films like Blade Runner and Prometheus , both by Ridley Scott. I use a 50 megapixel Hasselblad camera which avoids distortion. I also played around a lot with the shadows to give the images more depth and make them appear more three-dimensional, as if they were jumping off the screen. In addition, the human figures in the painting give an idea of ​​the scale of this artifact.

Are you allowed to direct technicians to make a shot look better?

A little. But in most of the photographs they are not posing. I prepare the scene: I place the lights, I choose a position and I wait a long time for something to happen, for the magic to happen. For example, that engineers come into the picture or do something interesting, eye-catching. Sometimes I may tell them not to move for a few seconds. And then I take the photograph. It’s a semi-direction, let’s say, but there’s a lot of serendipity as well. In general, I try to be inconspicuous, I ask the technicians to ignore the camera.

Why do you think photographs are so important in communicating science?

Portraying the James Webb telescope is like documenting the construction of the pyramids

I am something of a unicorn, an African-American photographer who almost exclusively portrays science. I consider that what I do is art: science and space exploration are culture. And culture belongs to all of us

Portraying the James Webb telescope is like documenting the construction of the pyramids

Without the images, the words and the message do not reach the common citizen. Pictures tell the story. They show you in detail how amazing this telescope is. How complicated was its construction. And in addition to documenting this process for eternity, these photographs especially serve to inspire future generations. A 7 or 10 year old might say, “I want to do that when I grow up.” I remember going to the library with my grandmother when I was nine and looking at astronomy books. I saw images of galaxies and planets that blew my mind. But, as I turned the pages, I didn’t see people like me. Perhaps my photographs will help change that.

You who have been very close, what does the James Webb telescope smell like?

In the morning you smell like isopropanol or isopropyl alcohol, that is, the most common disinfectant in the pharmaceutical industry, hospitals and in the manufacture of electronic or medical devices. Because they clean everything. It is a very strong clean smell. It is like an operating room. In fact, every time I entered the room I had to take the same precautions: clean my cameras and my lighting equipment. It is necessary to protect the artifact from human contamination, such as fibers, hair and skin cells.

Fotografía de la sala blanca de la NASA, donde se construye el telescopio espacial James Webb

Each shot involves several hours of preparation. Chris Gunn sets the scene: position the lights, pick a position, and wait for something to happen. / NASA

What is your next project?

I’ve already started taking pictures of the components of a telescope completely different from the Webb: the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope. I’m also working on another project that I’m very excited about: together with the science journalist Christopher Wanjek, I document the work of the engineers who are working to guarantee our presence in space. For example, how to go to the Moon and to Mars, how to feed human beings on those trips, how to bring them back, how to make air on Mars.

What do your friends and family say when you tell you that you are a telescope photographer?

Some are surprised. I am something of a unicorn, an African-American photographer who almost exclusively portrays science. I consider that what I do is art: science and space exploration are culture. And culture belongs to all of us. It is also my culture. Also, inside the clean room in our white suits we are all the same.

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