Far Out

Eyes accustomed to crisp landscapes may find Imag(in)ing Mars otherworldly

For more than 150 years, photographers have been busily snapping opposing realities and versions of the truth. They've wielded cameras as tools of analysis and exploration, to clarify mysteries and bring the distant near. And they've used them as tools of expression, to make enigmas of the commonplace.

There's plenty of both in two shows hosted by the University of Arizona's Center for Creative Photography--Imag(in)ing Mars, featuring more than 20 pictures taken on the red planet by the 1997 Mars Pathfinder mission, and Proximities, containing about 60 extreme close-ups of the human body by New York photographer Ann Mandelbaum.

In one sense, the encompassing theme of this deft pairing is the far and near. One show concerns a landscape that's 119 million miles away; the other, topography that's under your nose.

In another sense, these shows underscore a distinction between the goals of contemporary art and science. The Mars images unravel mysteries; Mandelbaum's create them.

Imag(in)ing Mars is more than a show of pictures. It is partly a fund raiser for the center; five of the Mars pictures are for sale.

As the show's title suggests, the big theme is how Mars has evolved in our imagination from a place of green creatures to one of red dust and gray rocks.

In addition to the Pathfinder images, the show contains artifacts, maps and texts from astronomers Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler and Percival Lowell. It has a few beautiful little drawings of Mars that Lowell made while looking at the planet through his telescope in Flagstaff. He was convinced that the grooves and indentations that he saw--and Italian planet-gazer Schiaparelli earlier had called canali--were canals built by Martians to transport water.

The exhibition also includes a small pile of science fiction from Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov and others, and video clips from Hollywood splendors like Lobster From Mars, Invaders From Mars, Capricorn One and more.

This obviously isn't the first time the Pathfinder's pictures have appeared in public. For most of the summer of 1997, when Pathfinder landed on Mars, images of the lander's 23-pound mechanical rover, Sojourner, filled television, newspapers and magazines. The mission's home page on the Internet logged more than 550 million "hits" in its first month.

Nevertheless, the images have a different reality on paper. They're oddly unphotographic.

Some of that might be because of the lack of an actual landscape with which to compare them, says Trudy Wilner Stack, the center's curator of exhibitions and organizer of both shows. "We obviously don't have a reality to check them against, and we can't compare them with a painting or a drawing of the place," she says.

Yet much of the strangeness stems from their digital origin. Unlike the pictures made by the Apollo astronauts on the moon, or the shots produced during the United States Geological Surveys of the West in the late 1800s, these photos were made without film. They exist solely as electronic data, which streamed back from Mars at about the rate of an 8K modem and were reassembled into a mosaic that looks like a landscape.

The basic size of each image sent by the Pathfinder was limited to a 14-degree square of Martian landscape or sky, about a third of what a standard 50 millimeter camera lens takes in.

The show's larger panoramas are actually composed of hundreds of smaller pictures. The images have been heavily manipulated. Many of their seams are obvious. So are the digital pixellations--an electronic cubism that builds the image out of minuscule squares. So, instead of the easy, continuous transition of forms and colors found in traditional landscape photographs, these digital images have a herky-jerky quality that makes the eye skip.

Images made electronically 119 million miles away aren't the best examples of modern digital magic. However, they highlight the visual crudeness of current electronic photography, and help explain why the Center for Creative Photography and other photographic institutions have been slow to begin collecting works in this nascent medium.

As images, they contain little of the detailed finesse of Mandelbaum's quirky gray explorations of nipples, moles, tongues, ears, lips and other human outcroppings and holes.

Mandelbaum's works, which date to 1994, amount to a series of "what ifs?" What if you put your nose up to the creases in your skin and saw it as a Lilliputian roving the surface of Gulliver would? What if you could zero in on a few hairs set aglow like electric filaments by the light? What if you could peer into someone's mouth, through a blown bubble of chewing gum, or walk up to lips drinking from a glass?

Mandelbaum has turned the body into a guessing game of land forms. Occasionally, she's able to let the mystery of her views build without answer, leaving you wondering what in the world is before you--the same question that sent the Pathfinder to Mars.

But scientists abhor not knowing the answers.
According to Peter Smith, an associate research scientist who led the team that developed the Pathfinder's camera at the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, scientists hoped that the Pathfinder's pictures of Mars would answer some fundamental questions about Martian geology and atmosphere.

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