Far out! Astrophotography show amazes at Museum

Direct from England’s Royal Observatory in Greenwich, a show that will have you seeing stars is on view now at the Vero Beach Museum of Art. The exhibition continues through Sept. 16.

The Holmes Gallery exhibit comprises 55 photographic images of the heavens, from neighboring planets to galaxies trillions of miles from our little earth. All of the images on display were snapped by amateur astrophotographers and represent the finest examples of their kind, selected from thousands of entries submitted to the 2017 Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition, conducted annually by the Royal Observatory.

Dr. Kevin Fewster, director of the Royal Greenwich Museums (of which the observatory is part), spoke about the context for the competition during his visit to the VBMA earlier this month.

Famed as the official location of the prime meridian, the Royal Observatory at Greenwich ceased to exist as a scientific research facility during World War II. Before it sustained bomb damage during the war, England’s official astronomical community had already decided to move the Royal Observatory away from the smog and light pollution of London, which it ultimately did in the 1950s.

The Greenwich observatory became part of the Royal Greenwich Museums in the 1960s. Despite its new purpose as a tourist destination, “We are still the world’s best known observatory,” Fewster says, adding that astronauts are among those who come to pay their respects.

“I’ve had numerous shuttle crews come to Greenwich. The International Space Station runs on Greenwich Mean Time, as do the space shuttles. The astronauts love coming to Greenwich, because it’s sort of home for them. It’s the world’s home in space.”

Astrophotography as a scientific pursuit at Greenwich goes back to the mid-19th century when, in conjunction with astronomical telescopes, early cameras recorded space phenomena in astounding detail.

Although the photos in the exhibit show nothing new about the contents of the universe, their ‘wow’ factor – directed to a diverse audience of scientist and non-scientist alike – is astronomical. It brings the best of artistic and scientific space imagery to the public, Fewster says.

The competition began in 2009 with most of the entries coming from England, Australia and the U.S. The 2018 competition attracted 4,300 entries from photographers in 80 countries and all eight continents – including Antarctica.

Fewster notes that the exhibition was first exhibited only in England at Greenwich; later traveling to a few other English venues as well.

This is the first year the show has been taken outside Britain, to cities in Russia and Portugal, as well as to Vero Beach and New York City in the U.S.

Fewster says he hopes that the Greenwich exhibition will continue to travel internationally in the future.

“This show could be at a science center, an observatory, an art museum. And that’s what I like about it.”

According to Fewster, what intrigued VBMA director Brady Roberts about the show was the way it arrived at the museum.

And that, museum goers, is what is really new and different about this show.

The pictures were sent to the VBMA not as objects in heavy crates, but as electronic files via email. A commercial printing company in Miami converted the files into inkjet prints, which were framed in-house at the VBMA and installed in the Holmes Gallery.

In all there are 55 photos on display. Of those, 37 are ink-jet prints on opaque substrates (i.e., digital prints on plastic “paper”), and 18 are printed on transparent plastic and mounted in wall-hung lightboxes. There is also a flat-screen monitor in the gallery that displays brief interviews with some of the show’s photographers.

A photo of the show as installed at the Royal Observatory Greenwich – displayed by Fewster during his opening lecture at the VBMA – revealed a small exhibition space, where the pictures – all of them mounted in light boxes – were hung salon style.

Because the Holmes Gallery is a much larger exhibition room than that at the observatory, the VBMA was able to print the images larger and hang the framed pictures in a single, generously spaced row. Fewster remarked on this with pleasure when he visited the show here.

The decision to mount some of the photos as back-lit transparencies and some as opaque prints was evidently made by the VBMA curatorial staff. This effectively highlights some prints over others. In the case of the competition’s 2017 overall winner, a photo of deep space titled “The Rho Ophiuchi Clouds” by Russian Artem Mironov, this makes sense. Not all of the 31 prize winners in the show are displayed as transparencies. Some of them are not even displayed as single prints in their own frames.

Of the framed images on paper, 16 were printed half the size of the others on display. In framing, those smaller prints were doubled-up, two to a frame. The eight frames containing the twosomes are scattered throughout the gallery. Their presentation is confusing at best. At worst, it devalues the importance of the images thus displayed.

The prints that were doubled-up were matched, it would seem, by like colors – and for no other purpose that can be discerned by this viewer. At first glance, it is easy to mistake the pictures as companions in concept or subject matter.

Take, for example, one such pairing: a stunning image titled “Nacreous Clouds” by Bartlomiej Jurecki of Poland, which is contained within the same frame with the equally fascinating “Wanderer in Patagonia” by Yuri Zvezdny of Russia.

Fewster singled out “Nacreous Clouds” for special praise during his visit here. Taken in Lofoten, Norway, on the last day of 2016, the picture shows the gentle, hill-like curves of polar stratospheric clouds prismatically refracting sunlight.

After marveling at the beauty of this rarely seen cloud formation, and likening the image’s composition to that of a fine art painting, Fewster said “this shows you how this show works. This was taken by a Polish photographer in Norway. This says something about our development as a species and about us as world citizens.”

The image was highly commended (aka, given an award of merit) in the competition’s “Skyscapes” category; its default companion, “Wanderer in Patagonia,” won the “People and Space” category.

In the latter picture, the figure of a man stands before a cave-like opening in a rocky landscape. Above the scene, an infinity of stars glitters in the Milky Way

The exhibition labels contain a few words by the photographers about their pictures. Yuri Zvezdny wrote that his shot was taken in the vicinity of the Piedras Blancas glacier in Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina.

He wrote, “Alone in the darkness, I made my way over huge rocks with the mountain river roaring under my feet and the glacier rumbling nearby. This place lives and breathes, and the forces that live here inspire awe.”

Now, doesn’t that picture, as well as each one of the other doubled-up works, rate its very own frame?

Fortunately for the museum, the possibility of amending the oversights of this year beckons on the horizon. According to Brady Roberts, the 2018 Astronomy Photographer of the Year Exhibition will be shown at the VBMA next summer.

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