Big Sky

Astronomy Photographer of the Year, World Museum, until 1st September, free

I’ve been racking my brains since yesterday to think: what good visual art is there about space? I can think of movies, and books, but not really any art. Van Gogh does my favourite stars. More recently The Museum of the Moon could count as a spectacle, but anything else that comes to mind was either sold in Camden Market 18 years ago or reminds me of a prog album.

Maybe the reason for this is that the universe is a completely mad concept to get your head around. Not just enormous, but infinite. Rules we base our lives on, like time or direction, cease to mean what we think they mean. So a painting – which for most of the history of painting could only possibly be of a tiny, visible section of infinity, maybe doesn’t quite cut it in the storytelling department. But oh, these photographs do.

Martin Lewis, Parade of the Planets

First off, let’s talk about the presentation. It’s a dark room with low lighting and all the photographs are presented on lightboxes. Meanwhile a very ‘space-y’ noise – the kind you’ve heard on a documentary – fills the room, albeit subtly. It sounds cliche for a show about space, but it’s also the way they get the most out of the work. What unites all these photographs is the detail, and lightboxes are the best way to highlight this. You don’t miss a single detail, and it’s the kind of spectacular presentation the subject deserves.

Chuanjin Su, Eclipsed Moon Trail

As you might expect, astronomical photography is a pretty specialised business. It’s technical work, but the success of these photos is threefold. Technical accomplishment sits alongside an understanding of the science of the universe, knowing precisely what it is they want to capture. But what’s really striking is the variety of approaches that have been taken to the subjects. There’s a limited number of categories, so you’d imagine that there’s be a level of repetition in the ways of looking at the sun or the moon or some stars. Nope; it’s more diverse and interesting than some other photography shows I’ve seen in the last couple of years. Each category has a winner and it usually is the best picture, but there’s little less wondrous about any of the other images*.

Take the pictures of the sun, none of which depict the sun as you know it. The winning picture of a total solar eclipse is deeply textured, with a beautiful contrast between the deep shadows of the moon and the rays of sun emanating from behind it. But I was floored by all of the others, too. There’s one that’s a closeup of a solar flare which makes the sun look almost fluffy. Or one where it moves through the colour spectrum – you can’t even imagine the sun leaving these impressions! But my favourite is Haiyang Zong’s AR2673, which captures sunspots in a monochrome which is almost abstract. It defies what you imagine of an “astronomical photo”.

Or the galaxies – I think I spent more time with these than anything else. Artistically the compositions are excellent, with areas of rich detail and a sense of positioning which comes from the individual photographer’s eye. And the detail is exquisite. You might not be able to see every star, but you see enough to get a sense of perspective on our place in it all.

Rolf Wahl Olsen, Thackeray’s Globules in Narrowband Colour

And the colour! You can know the universe isn’t actually all black (I’m sure I’ve read before that it’s actually a kind of beige anyway?), but the colours here are put to amazing compositional use. I haven’t even talked yet about the photos which use earthscapes as a feature, but they’re probably the best ones for it. The photographers of these like playing with light, and the contrasts they create are so, so beautiful. Th way they capture light and moods, even the earth itself – and many of these photos are set in the wild places of the world – seems elevated to something special.

But then there’s a photo right at the start of the show – Living Space by Andrew Whyte. It’s an incongruous image of a full sky rising above a suburban street, made possible by the lack of electric lighting. It’s a reminder that this whole universe is right there, above us. Thinking about space and the universe always gets me with this sense of the sublime, and maybe it was just my hangover, but at one point I had to sit down because I was just so overwhelmed with it all. That’s what these photos do. It’s art, it’s beautiful in its own right, but it’s triumph lies in representing how the very best have the talent to capture something almost incomprehensible in such magnificent ways.

*none of the images I’ve used for this article are winners, by the way. You’ll just have to go for yourself to see those…

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