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'Beyond: Visions of Our Solar System': A stunning look out of this world

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 3, 2010; R02

The sun is 93 million miles away, and the temperature at its surface is 10,000 degrees.

Saturn is 777 million miles from us, and the tops of its clouds are at an icy 285 degrees below zero.

Mars is much closer and friendlier: only 49 million miles away, and averaging a hospitable minus 80 degrees.

What would it mean to get a firsthand look at objects so nearly unreachable, so unwelcoming, so unfathomably strange? That was the question that stayed with me as I viewed the 146 amazing photographs of planets, their moons and the sun in "Beyond: Visions of Our Solar System," an exhibition at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. (Some of the same images are also on view, and on sale, at Longview Gallery through Oct. 24.)

The oldest saw about art is that it "makes absent things present." But what should we make of images that bring planets within reach? A picture of a dog lets us know what it would feel like to be within sight of it. But being brought "within sight" of Jupiter's moons demands a suspension of disbelief at a whole different level. The stunning images in "Beyond" do an amazing job of showing us worlds we've never seen and never will see. That makes them feel more like fiction, even poetry, than fact.

They are, however, almost entirely factual. Michael Benson, the New York-based writer, photographer and filmmaker who is behind this show, gathered its images from databases at NASA and elsewhere, sorting through tens of thousands of pictures to find the most striking ones.

What was in those databases wasn't a lot like what is on the walls in "Beyond." Scientists don't care much about getting pretty pictures. The cameras on their spaceships and probes are meant to deliver information, so they shoot in black-and-white, often through colored filters that yield data. For a scientist, 60 shots that pan across a planetary landscape are as useful as a single gorgeous panoramic one. A black-and-white that captures only the blue wavelengths bouncing off a planet might be more useful than a true-color shot.

Scientists will even happily de-beautify their photographs -- for instance, by adding gridded dots, called reseau marks, that help them calibrate equipment.

Benson, working with the imaging specialist Paul Geissler, took the optical information offered by the scientific photos and translated it into pictures of the planets as they might appear to the naked eye.

Benson Photoshopped out thousands of the reseau marks, then filled them in with pixels cloned from nearby on each image. Information garnered through colored filters had to be read in terms of what it said about the real colors in a scene, and was then melded with black-and-whites. Some of the color information might come from pictures taken on a different fly-by. In one case, it came from pictures taken during a different space mission.

To get an eye-filling, seamless image of Jupiter and its moon Europa, Benson stitched together 60 photos. He did the same for his image of a Martian dust storm, and for his panoramas of the Martian surface seen from inside a crater.

There might be guesswork and artistic intuition in some of Benson's reconstructions, and even a tiny touch of poetic license. Pictures of the sun tend to be shot in the invisible ultraviolet spectrum rather than by visible light. They could be printed in any color, Benson explains, but he chose flamelike reds and yellows. "NASA does release some of those pictures in green, and I wince. . . . I wanted to make the sun look as hot as possible."

Overall, however, Benson's goal was to pull accurate information, then assemble it into a fairly traditional realism. There are aesthetic choices involved, as there are any time a photographer decides which lens to use and when to snap the shutter, "but it's not as though I'm taking a urinal and calling it 'Fountain,' " Benson says. His goal was to end up with pictures that show what things might really look like to a human floating by the rings of Saturn or striding across Mars.

And that, once again, is where my mind starts to tumble: I can't quite imagine that person careering through space, 777 million miles from home, and enjoying the sights. Space flight might someday permit it, and Benson's photos may indeed predict what that person would see. But there's still a gap I feel between the sights those photos show and any state of affairs my terrestrial brain can believe in.

Maybe my problem is that the space flight, the science, the getting-there and getting-the-shot are missing from these photos.

Benson chose images that were unearthly beautiful, then made them perfect. "I chose a lot of images that are semi-abstract -- to indulge that interest of mine," he says. He points out how the surface of Mars can look like an abstract expressionist canvas.

These photographs are gorgeous, and the worlds they show are wondrous. But I miss the scientists' grid-marks, the fractures in their panoramas, the artifacts of their filters, that might hint at how these strange worlds came to be before my eyes.

My eyes see too much evident art in these photographs for my mind not to imagine that there's tons of artifice behind them.

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