Robert Adams, Quarried Mesa Top, Pueblo County, Colorado, 1978
Robert Adams wrote a great essay, “In the Nineteenth-century West,” which was originally printed in a book of landcape photography
(reprinted in the must-own collection Why People Photograph, page 133), but it’s relavent to Mars photography. Comparing the painters and
photographers from the period, specifically Timothy O’Sullivan, when they painted similar scenes, Adams believes the photographers’ work holds up better.
He uses Thomas Eakins as an example of a talented painter from the east that flailed in the west.
Thomas Eakins, 1888
The main difference Adams points out is, when the painters were confronted with negative space, they filled it with imagination and fiction. Fluffy cotton puffs
were dabbed into bleak, cloudless skies. The Colorado Rockies were painted to look more like the Swiss Alps. Photographers were unable to do this. Adams
has a great line: “The limits of the machine saved them.”
Timothy O’Sullivan, Fissure Vent at Steamboat Springs, Nevada, 1867
You see this in the Mars photography also. Mars Curiosity is driven by humans, but those scientists are interested in using the photographs to navigate and find a path to explore. The empty space of these photographs creates a stage
without a center. Adams compares O’Sullivan to Cezanne (“our Cezanne”). O’Sullivan understood “nature first as architecture” and the “vacancy at the
center.” Both artists were a combination of artist/geologist, “in love with light and rock.” The NASA team is there for the geology more than the light. There are
no aesthetic or conceptual choices. If they drive to reach a spot with a view, it’s to survey their best strategy for entering a crater or climbing a mountain, not for the view.
O’Sullivan at the Met’s archive
Tyler Green’s piece on Mars and 19th century
photography points out that there are fewer of these ‘empty space’ photos than we think. When Adams wrote his essay in the late 1970s, he could not visit various museum sites to make an accurate overview of O’Sullivan’s body of work. But even if he did, he might come to the same
conclusion. A smaller quantity of these empty space compositions makes a bigger impression than the rest of the photographs. Adams points out that, just as the painters from the east did lesser work in the west, O’Sullivan’s Panama photographs are his lesser work. Adams writes, “space is not
Approaching the Rovers’ archive, the “dumb” machine photographer is a good limitation for artists.
There are many sunset photos, but not a single one is saccharine; they are taken to see distant planets in the sky or to calibrate the solar panels.
The challenge of exploring the archive is typical of the digital age: the quantity is
overwhelming. If the limits of a machine can save you, the un-limitations of a machine can kill you. There are 300,000 photos from the two Mars rovers from the last decade and certainly thousands more are on their way from Curiosity. It’s a huge, messy collection of empty space photographs.
Skirting an Obstacle, Opportunity’s Sol 1867, 2009
“Truism from experience of many landscape photographers - one does not for long wrestle a view camera in the wind and heat and cold just to illustrate a philosophy”