Practice-Based PhD Research, Fine Art, Royal College of Art, 2015-2022
"Ancient Light: Rematerialising The Astronomical Image"
How can the field of astronomical photography, viewed through the lens of new materialism, alter our collective perception of ecology? How does the coalescence between astronomy and materiality alter our perception of analogue photographic processes?
Within this time of ecological catastrophe, it is important to readdress our tangible, material connection with the universe and our planet. By analysing this interaction between astronomy, new materialism and photography, New insights are provided on how this collision of theories alters our understanding of the natural world. The thesis demonstrates the interconnectedness between the universe, humans and photographic materiality. It discusses the importance of interrogating th ematerials that we use on a daily basis, with a specific focus on waste produced by the photographic industry.
Analogue astronomical photography, viewed through the lens of new materialism, uniquely allows us to understand the intimate connection between the cosmos and the Earth bound. Silver is found within distant stars, yet it can be mined from the depths of our Earth and used to create photographic images. Calcium is also found within stars such as our Sun, yet it is also a building block of bones and teeth, which can then be processed to make gelatin.
The thesis draws upon my own reflective practice, where I have taken long exposure photographs of the stars within international dark sky locations and observatories. The methodology of this practice-based research is informed by Donna Haraway and Melody Jue who advocate for an embodied experience of landscape, in opposition to a cold, scientific view. This research builds on Donald Schön’s concept of“reflective knowledge”, and Katrine Hjelde’s “hermeneutic” approach. Within this research, I demonstrate a qualitative approach which enables me to gain an in-depth, multi-faceted understanding of astronomy, photographic materiality, and ecology. The thesis is informed by photographic artists working in the landscape, including Garry Fabian Miller and Susan Derges.
This research also discusses the direct material, indexical link within photography, drawing on Roland Barthes, SusanSontag and Mary Ann Doane amongst others. It goes on to consider“more-than-representational”, non-human photography, as introduced by Rebecca Najdowski and Joanna Zylinska. Additionally, the thesis is situated within the context of new materialist theories which seek to understand the intrinsic material connections between human and non-human phenomena. It draws from theorists such as Jane Bennett, Karen Barad, Donna Haraway, Timothy Morton and Robin Wall Kimmerer who analyse the complex network of material exchanges from a perspective informed by contemporary science, as well as ancient indigenous perspectives.
By understanding more about the interconnected nature of photographic and astronomical materiality it is imperative to innovate new methods of sustainable photographic practice.This research demonstrates analogue photographic processes which are less damagingto the environment, including plant-based developers and silver reclamation from photographic fixer. Distinct from contemporary astronomical photographic images which are often made of composites and enhanced colour, Ancient Light demonstrates the intimate connection that humans share with the stars, by examining the tangible, entangled connections between the stars, humane xistence and the ecology of planet Earth. The thesis advances knowledge in this area by weaving these connections together, providing new insights into the materiality of photography through lenses of varying magnitude, from microscopic to cosmic.
MA Research, Art and Science, Central Saint Martins, 2011-2013
My Masters thesis at Central Saint Martins was focused on the subject of the bubble as a metaphor for the brevity of life. In 17th Century Dutch Vanitas paintings, the soap bubble was used as a visual metaphor to remind the viewer of the transient nature of life. The soap bubble exists for just a couple of seconds, a perfect sphere, reflecting and refracting its surroundings beautifully. Due to the dryness of the air surrounding the soap bubble, and the pull of gravity, the bubble eventually bursts. It was almost as if the bubble had never existed. The Dutch Vanitas artists of The Golden Age, likened the existence of life to the every-day phenomena of the soap bubble, and now with a superior knowledge of the universe we can draw more comparisons. From looking at the universe, we have discovered that life has only inhabited a tiny portion of the entirety of time and space, and is therefore incredibly precious. Alike the soap bubble, life exists for a (relatively) short amount of time, before it ‘pops’ out of existence.
The idea of ‘life as a bubble’ holds weight in contemporary cosmological theory, scientists often compare cosmological happenings to bubbles and foam. This idea spans from inflation theory, to multiverse theory – the idea that the universe exists as one bubble amongst a sea of cosmic foam . In the constellation Cassiopeia, there sits a Bubble Nebula which measures over six light-years across, having been blown by cosmic winds. This idea even extends to quantum science relating to the birth of the universe, as some scientists believe that the universe exists as a quantum fluctuation from nothing, something that can be easily understood by watching the soap bubble emerge and then disappear within a matter of seconds.