Practice-Based PhD Research, Fine Art, Royal College of Art, 2015-2021

"Ancient Light: Rematerialising The Astronomical Image"
Ancient Light Series
Related Astronomy Series

How can the field of astronomical photography, viewed through the lens of new materialism, alter our collective perception of ecology? How does the entanglement of astronomy and materiality alter our perception of the photographic object?

This practice-based research considers what it is to capture light that has been travelling thousands, if not millions, of years onto photosensitive film. By analysing this interaction between astronomy, new materialism and photography, I provide new insights into how this collision of theories alter our collective perception of ecology. Jane Bennett’s concept of the vitality of matter is compared with Karen Barad’s theory of Agential Realism, to enhance our understanding of the intimate connection between human and non-human beings. Leading on from this, these new materialist texts are compared to theories surrounding the materiality of the photograph, and the concept of “the photographic object”.

This body of research is anchored by my fieldwork within the UCLO Observatory and Kielder Observatory, utilising large telescopes to expose light from distant stars (such as Arcturus, Mizar and Alcor) onto photosensitive film. Fieldwork also includes residencies within rural areas, away from light pollution within Ireland, Italy, Spain, Iceland, and the UK. During these residencies, I have had the opportunity to take long exposure photographs of the stars, using 35mm, 120mm and 16mm film.

My research combines contemporary scientific innovation with historical photographic practice, maintaining a focus on the materiality of the image. Due to this focus on materiality, the sustainability of the analogue photographic development process has come under scrutiny.  From studying the stuff of photography in depth, I consider the vitality of matter within my practice. Within this text, I will consider how photographic materials come to be, and how they may affect our environment.

Throughout this practice-based research, I have maintained the methodology of a reflective practitioner. My approach is autobiographical and open-ended, to allow for discoveries that I may find whilst working in dark sky locations. I discuss the importance of solitude and slowness for the creative practitioner, and the perspective that can be gained from looking at a dark sky full of stars. Here, I draw upon the research of Donald Schön, Barbara Bolt and Mika Hannula.

This body of research focuses on artists such as Gary Fabian Miller, Katie Paterson and Liliane Lijn, considering their approaches to astronomy, light and materiality within their practice. This research includes study within a number of astronomical archives, including the Royal Astronomical Society, the UCL Space History Archive, and the Carnegie Observatory archives amongst others. Here, astronomical photographic objects (such as glass plates, tintypes and silver gelatin prints) were analysed, considering both their scientific and philosophical meanings. These archives hold photographic objects which have changed our current understanding of the universe during the past century. In the case of Hubble’s variable plate, a glass plate photograph held at the Carnegie Observatory Archives, this photographic object provided evidence that the universe was expanding – shrinking Earths’ place in the cosmos whilst simultaneously opening up a vast arena for new discoveries. 

This research provides new insights related to new materialism and photographic theory embedded within the practice based research. I consider the materiality of Ancient Light, taking into account the materiality of photographic film, life-forms and the stars. To this end, I also consider my own use of photographic materials, enabling me to invent new ways of developing film that are more sensitive to the environment.

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. Our collective perception of ecology is altered as astronomical photographs continually remind us that conscious and diverse lifeis rare, both within the timeline of the universe and the dark depths of the cosmos.

This entanglement of astronomy and materiality alter our perception of the photographic object as we learn that the materiality of the photographic is born of the stars. By understanding more about the materiality of photography and astronomy, we more deeply understand the importance of innovating new methods of eco-friendly photographic practice. 

This practice-based research provides new perspectives on the photographic object that is produced by ancient light travelling immense distances through the void of space. Distinct from contemporary astronomical photographic images which are often made of composites and false colour, Ancient Light aims to demonstrate the intimate connection that humans share with the stars.

MA Research, Art and Science, Central Saint Martins, 2011-2013

Metaphors in Art and Science - The Bubble as a Metaphor for the Brevity of Life 
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Homo Bulla Series

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.

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