We need a Bierstadt on Barsoom…

One of the questions I put to rover driver Scott Maxwell in the interiew in the previous post was inspired by, well, a nagging, niggly, itchy feeling I’ve had for a while now… that as amazing as the images we’ve seen of Endeavour crater so far are, they’re not even coming close to capturing how beautiful and dramatic the landsape around Oppy – in particular the crater’s mountainous rim – must look ‘in person’…
Obviously SCIENCE is the priority, and Oppy is a geologist not a tourist, but as the beautiful hills of Endeavour loom ever larger, and are so beautiful and dramatic, are there any plans, or just hopes, to take some more artistic shots of them? Sunrise? Earth shining above them? After all, we – Mankind – won’t pass this way again for a long, long time. Is there any longing to take a classic “Ansell Adams” portrait of Endeavour?
*sigh*  I’ve often said that every space mission should be assigned a poet.  We’re lucky to have you as our unofficial one, but we haven’t got an official one to look out for opportunities like that.  Thanks to Paolo, we’re regularly taking pictures of Endeavour as we approach, but they tend to be catch-as-catch-can — if we get something really poetic or dramatic, it’ll be more a function of luck than planning.
Scott’s answer was frustrating, but was both expected and absolutely the right – and only – one. Oppy is a robot geologist, not a tourist, and her task is to conduct science on the surface of Mars to further our knowledge and understanding of the Red Planet; she’s not there to just take pretty pictures like some interplanetary tourist. The MER team have enough on their plates steering her around craters, navigating her across the great dust sea of Meridiani and getting her safely to Endeavour to think about stopping to take a snap… 🙂

And yet

Part of me – a selfish, unrealistic, naive part, I confess! – wishes that the MER team would put a little time aside to plan, and take, more ‘artistic’ images, even just a handful, as Oppy makes her way towards Endeavour.

Now, before anyone says anything, I know, I know, the pictures she takes are carefully planned, to the moment, to be as useful as possible scientifically, and to help get Oppy to Endeavour’s rim where she can conduct more amazing science. But I honestly can’t help wondering if, now and again, Oppy could deliberately take pictures at different times of the day, just so she, and we, could see the amazing landscape around her in a different light -literally. I wish she would stop now and again, or even just once,  just to take a look at what the hills look like at sunrise, or sunset, with the light of the low Sun slanting across the landscape, to add a more human perspective to the journey.

I wish she could be a tourist sometimes.

We’ve already had tantalising glimpses of what Oppy can do as a photographer. As she has travelled across Meridiani, Oppy has given us stunning views of countless craters, meteorites and blocks of ejecta, and it’s been possible to use those raw images to create quite lovely “colourised” images that have been enjoyed by countless people around the world, shared across the internet and printed in books and magazines in almost every country on the planet. They’ve had a huge impact, and have helped keep the MER mission’s profile as high as it deserves to be. MER enthusiasts over on the unmannedspaceflight.com forum – people like James Canvin, Olivier deBoursac and Astro0 (and I’ve had a go myself, too!) – regularly take Oppy’s raw images and turn them into quite magical panoramas which give a sweeping view of the epic, Big Country landscape of Meridiani. But the views are all pretty similar because the images are all taken at roughly the same time of day, when the scientific conditions necessary for taking and then transmitting the images are best I guess. But there’s a voice in the back of my mind telling me that if she could be commanded once, just once, to stop and look at the martian landscape with a more artistic eye, at a different time of day, when the landscape would look dramatically different, the images she took would be… well, breathtaking.

But I’m not holding my breath. Oppy is there to do science, and not to stand about like a glorified sightseer, snapping away at pretty sunsets or dreamy sunrises. She’s there to work, not swoon. Perhaps “Curiosity” – with her greater power and more versatile cameras – will be able to give us more artistic views of Mars, we’ll have to wait and see. But again, rightly, the science will always, always come first.

Ah, but one day… one day…

One day there’ll be people on Mars, following in Oppy’s tracks, working away in an outpost at Victoria Crater, or next to Endeavour, and as committed as they are to “the science” they’ll have time off too. And, just like you and I, they’ll long to get the hell away from their laboratories, computers and consoles and get out to see Mars – and record what they see.

Many, if not all of them, will have cameras, and they will turn into tourists as soion as they escape from the confines of the base, and will enjoy nothing better than taking images of Mars’ beautiful sunrises, sunsets, and every pretty scene that catches their eye.

And eventually, I have no doubt, an artist will travel to Mars and record what they see not with a camera, not in super-high-definition 3D video, but on an old fashioned canvas, with paint, and then the epic martian landscape will finally be recorded in its true beauty.

I often wonder what landscape artists of the past would have made of Mars. What magnificent landscapes would they have painted if they had taken a rover down to the floor of Valles Marineris, or to the Great Escarpment of Olympus Mons, or to the edge of Victoria Crater? If anyone ever invents a time machine for real I hope that after its creator has messed about with travelling back in time to watch dinosaurs fighting or see Kennedy being shot they do something useful, and pluck one of the Hudson River School artists out of the late 1880s and transport them to Mars, with their brushes and easels, and asks them to paint what they see before wiping their memories and taking them back again…

Imagine, just imagine the stunning work those great artists could create on Mars! Here’s Thomas Moran’s famous painting “Cliffs of the Upper Colorado River”…

Just think of what he could have done with the great crumbling cliffs that run along the walls of Valles Marineris…

Frederick Edwin Church painted this famous picture of an iceberg…

…imagine the beauty he could capture up at the martian north pole, with the low Sun glinting off the layered escarpments and ridges…

But if I had to choose one artist to magically grab out of time and plonk down on Mars it would be Albert Bierstadt, possibly my favourite artist- yes, even ahead of Van Gogh and Turner. Bierstadt’s work is famous for its beautiful colours, rich textures and just its epic, jaw-dropping feel…

Looking at his picture there of Yosemite Valley, it sends a shiver up my spine when I think about the paintings he would have created if he had been born in a hundred years time, and had lived on Mars, how he would have captured the subtle shades of the martian sky, how he would have shown the cold, glacial beauty of a martian sunset…

I have a particular findness for Bierstadt because, well, he sounds so familiar. It says on Wikipedia:

“The romanticism evident in his choices of subject and in his use of light was felt to be excessive by contemporary critics. His paintings emphasized atmospheric elements like fog, clouds and mist to accentuate and complement the feel of his work. Bierstadt sometimes changed details of the landscape to inspire awe. The colors he used are also not always true. He painted what he believed was the way things should be: water is ultramarine, vegetation is lush and green, etc.”

Haha! That’s me! Many of my ‘images of Mars’, as I keep saying, are more like my own personal ‘visions’ of Mars, how I see it in my own mind’s eye, I guess how I think it should look,  rather than true depictions. If only Bierstadt was on Mars now, right now, walking alongside Oppy as she heads for Endeavour. The sights he would see! The paintings he would be creating! I could scream with the injustice, the unfairness of it…

But one day there will be an artist on Mars, and then, even if he or she is no Bierstadt, the Red Planet will be painted just as beautifully, just as dramatically and just as lovingly as Moran, Church and Bierstadt himself painted the American West all those years ago. Maybe, one morning, just before dawn, members of the Meridiani School of Art will trek up to the top of Cape York, sit themselves down beside the crystal-coated plaque celebrating Opportunity’s conquest of the summit, and paint a glorious sunrise – the very view Oppy saw, all those years ago…

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6 Responses to We need a Bierstadt on Barsoom…

  1. Great post. I think you are right to see the value of the Martian landscape to art, not just science. Exploration has always combined the pursuit of worldly knowledge with a pursuit of self-knowledge. And the self-knowledge part of this comes from living vicariously through the words and images of human explorers – they are our placeholders in the exotic landscapes of the solar system. Or, to render it in terms of Bierstadt, Turner, and Church: they are the small human figure painted into the foreground in order to give the viewer some perspective. But this perspective is more difficult to achieve with robotic explorers. All the more reason, then, that the rovers should take a little time to find the majesty of Mars. It should be part of the mission too.

  2. Astro0 says:

    OK, so you have the ‘resident poet’ job, so I’m happy to volunteer for the ‘resident artist’ position. 🙂 Sign me up!
    I do think that ‘every’ photo that the Rovers have taken on Mars is “art” in some way.
    to be fair, I do think that there have been a number of photos for ‘arts sake’ taken by the Rover team, they just tell NASA that it was done for science.
    Think back to Spirit’s famous sunset image ‘A Moment in Time’ or the ‘McMurdo Panorama’ or the ‘Low Sun from Low Ridge’ and Opportunity’s ‘Lion King’ and ‘Rub Al Khali’ panoramas or Emily’s suggested a ‘Moment in Time’.
    Nothing will ever beat the ‘art’ that can be captured by a human eye at that right moment in the right light, but until we sit on Mars with brush and canvas at the ready, these ‘arty science’ views will have to do.

  3. J. Major says:

    This is a great post Stu. You are so right…..Mars’ landscape would be a wonderful subject for a generation of talented artists. Let’s hope they include a landscape painter in the first manned exploration team. 😉

  4. Theo Wellington says:

    I disagree – the mars rover driver answer was NOT the only one. Every day past the initial 90 day mission has been a gift, and some should be used just for that poetic inspiring look. Isn’t that part of NASA’s “mission statement?”

    “To inspire the next generation of explorers, as only NASA can.”

    How about for Opportunity: “To inspire humans to follow me exploring Mars.”?

    I also reject the either-or way of looking at this. Why climb the mountaintop? Surely every climber stands and just…enjoys the view. Sure, you also record your exact elevation, the weather, etc. But you also just look. You photograph. Because that’s the only place you can get that view. The way cool thing about the universe is that at all scales, the view is always…beautiful.

    When I get to Mars, I’ll be taking lots of pictures because the view is pretty. (I can’t paint, sorry.) Maybe that’s a reason to send a human….once there, the camera is in MY hands, and I’ll take pictures of what seems good to me. Like you, I’ve already got shots of some things framed in my head. Like a rover….not Photoshopped, but really in the foreground. When can we go?

  5. limey says:

    I very much agree with the sentiment of this post.

    Art and science should go together more often. One exposing the beauty and the majesty of the other. The result can only be inspiration and motivation to explore more.

  6. Pingback: Carnival of Space 178 « we are all in the gutter

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