Stargazing and the Invisible: Photography and the Power of Obscured Light

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sunderland
Department Name: Arts and Design

Abstract

Arts Funders including Arts Council England are encouraging collaboration between business and artistic sectors. However, there are relatively few models of good practice in which the needs and different ways of working of both are resolved. The deep cultural connectedness of astronomy and photography and their shared fascination with darkness offers a particularly pertinent research context. Taking the proposition of female space as a starting point, the research will devise and test an innovative and immersive Astrophotography practice. The proposed research is designed to provide artistic.commercial outputs and academic contributions that will serve as a model for other cross-sector partnerships.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Title 'Writing Skyscapes' touring exhibition, Nottingham Trent University 
Description Contributing two 'Wanderers' portraits to the touring 'Writing Skyscapes' exhibition (a photography-poetry-astronomy research project led by Daniel Brown, a cultural astronomer at Nottingham Trent University). 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2018 
Impact The exhibitions have enabled my portraits to be publically encountered in the context of existing astrophotography (including NASA images of outer space and the work of amateur astronomers) and with other photographic artists (including Pauline Woolley). Accompanying talks and engagement workshops, the exhibition has been displayed during: - 'Writing Skyscapes: new perspectives', a two-day immersive writing workshop with a focus on poetry and photography, at Crewell Crags (Worksop) and Backlit Gallery, Nottingham (March 2019) - 'Writing Skyscapes' exhibition, Backlit Gallery (April 2019), Creswell Crags (Summer 2019), Mayo Dark Sky Park visitor centre (December 2019), Nottingham Contemporary - 'Open Dome Special: Exploring Skyscapes' workshop, exhibition and talks, Nottingham Contemporary (February 2020) 
URL https://www.instagram.com/capturingskyscapes/
 
Title Anatomy of a Northern Astronomer 
Description This artwork was installed as a museum-style table with 40 photographs of astronomy-related objects with a descriptive image key. The images visualised the tools required to undertake an evening of dark sky observation (i.e. headtorch, telescope, warm clothes, thermos flask etc.) and objects symbolising an astronomer's inspirations/curiosity for stargazing (i.e. 1960's TV that screened the Moon Landing, 2001: A Space Odessy LP, handmade rocket etc.) This work was inspired by four conversations with volunteers at Kielder Observatory, who described their inspirations for volunteering at the observatory. 
Type Of Art Artwork 
Year Produced 2019 
Impact Audiences included photography students at the University of Sunderland, online/social media, exhibition audiences to 'Observe, Experiment, Archive' (Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens), staff/visitors at Kielder Observatory, attendees to 'Writing Skyscapes' Nottingham Contemporary talk. These audiences were impacted through a new encounter with a physical, human experience of dark sky observation in northern England - an alternative photographic encounter to the cliched 'starry sky' images created by organisations such as NASA. Producing this work in collaboration with that volunteers at Kielder Observatory has heavily impacted the direction of my practice-led research: to explore the physical human experience of dark sky observation for astronomers in northern England. Further, this has enabled me to consider the act of stargazing in a remote place as a practice of 'escapism' for observers. 
URL http://www.helenmcghie.com/foundinkielderforest_images.html
 
Title Dark Adaptation 
Description This large-scale landscape (225cm x 150cm) captures a car park in Kielder Forest, illuminated with red flashlight to capture/represent the environment that an astronomer works in (red light ensures optimum night vision). The title 'Dark Adaptation' relates to the process that the human eye undergoes to see the faintest light (in this context, starlight) in the dark. The image was photographed at the bottom of the single track road to Kielder Observatory. 
Type Of Art Image 
Year Produced 2019 
Impact Audiences have reported that the landscape as a representation of Martian land, which has impacted how I may create further work that positions Kielder as a visitor attraction offering an immersive, 'otherworldly experience'. Audiences included photography students at the University of Sunderland, online/social media, exhibition audiences to 'Observe, Experiment, Archive' Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens, staff/visitors at Kielder Observatory, attendees to 'Writing Skyscapes' Nottingham Contemporary event. Printing the work large-scale has impacted my way of thinking, considering the image as a theatrical backdrop to be encountered by visitors at Kielder, who may be further inspired by an imaginative experience of stepping on martian land - fulfilling one of the organisation's aims: to inspire and enthuse visitors with space. 
URL https://invisiblestargazing.blog/2020/02/10/observe-experiment-archive-1-dark-adaptation/
 
Title Field/s ONE group photography exhibition, Sluice_ Gallery, London 
Description My 'Wanderers' portraits (and pilot text panel and clay meteorite artworks) were included in this group photography exhibition with 11 other artists who were part of the monthly Field/s Peer Group Forum, funded by ArtQuest and hosted by The Photographer's Gallery, London (October 2017 - June 2018.) Exhibition dates: 8th - 18th November 2018. Exhibiting artists: Thom Bridge, Anja Olofgörs, Emma Bäcklund, Andrew Bruce, Monica Takvam, Maria Kapajeva, Ryan L. Moule, Julie F. Hill, Helen McGhie, Kim Jakobsen To, Martin Seed, Laura Hensser. 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2018 
Impact My practice-led research was tested in an artist 'project space' public exhibition context, where each artist's work was encountered in relation to the other artworks displayed. The location of London provided an opportunity to impact the public awareness of Kielder Observatory outside of the North East region, raising its profile in a cultural context. Based on my initial literature and contextual review research, the opportunity enabled me to realise and reflect on my pilot visual methods. 
URL https://www.artrabbit.com/events/fields-one-2018
 
Title Observe, Experiment, Archive group photography exhibition, Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens. 
Description Funded by Arts Council England, this exhibition was organised/curated by the North East Photography Network (based at the University of Sunderland). It provided the opportunity for my first major output of practice-led research in a museum-exhibition context, three works were displayed: 'Dark Adaptation', 'Anatomy of a Northern Astronomer' and 'Wanderers'. The exhibition showed work from eight international artists who investigated and explored practices of photographic representation in science. Exhibition dates: 15th November 2019 - 5th January 2020. Exhibiting photographers: Mandy Barker, Tessa Bunney, Liza Dracup, Sophie Ingleby, Helen McGhie, Maria McKinney, Robert Zhao Renhui and Penelope Umbrico. 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2019 
Impact The work was professionally displayed in a public science/industry museum context (with its own education/outreach programme) to test out photographic exhibition techniques of challenging how dark skies in astronomy are communicated in a group exhibition with other photographic practitioners. My practice was useful to reflect on in relation to the other work in the show, which also challenged traditional modes of scientific representation. This exhibition has been invaluable to my research methodology, it also provided valuable opportunities to meet with the CEO, chair of Trustees, Arts Lead and a volunteer at Kielder Observatory, each of whom reflected upon their experience of the work and how this/my future practice (installation of work on-site at Kielder Observatory) can impact the organisation's cultural capital and public outreach programme. 
URL https://sunderlandculture.org.uk/events/observe-experiment-archive/
 
Title Wanderers, photography portraits at Kielder Forest 
Description This is an ongoing series of portraits taken of staff, volunteers and visitors looking up at the sky at Kielder Observatory, photographed in different locations next to the observatory/on the observation deck. Images have been printed/framed at 89cm x 89cm. 
Type Of Art Image 
Year Produced 2018 
Impact Engaging the staff, volunteers and visitors with a different way to encounter dark skies through photography (rethinking hyperreal and cliched representations of space i.e. NASA), considering the solitary/performative experience of observation within an immersive landscape. 
URL http://www.helenmcghie.com/foundinkielderforest_images.html
 
Description 'Observe, Experiment, Archive' - North East Photography Network
Amount £1,000 (GBP)
Organisation Arts Council England 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 11/2019 
End 01/2020
 
Description Kielder Observatory (National Productivity Investment Fund partner organisation) 
Organisation Kielder Observatory
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Contributing new fine-art photography and moving image to the organisation (portraits, still lifes, landscapes) that have been used in different public contexts including exhibitions ('Field/s One', 8-18th November 2017, 'Observe, Experiment, Archive', 15th November 2019 - 5th January 2020), Kielder Observatory's newsletter and blog. All work has provided the organisation with new creative practice to create cultural capital through innovative public outreach on-site and beyond (raising the awareness of Kielder Observatory.) My work has enabled new approaches to 'communicate science', which is one of the main objectives of the organisation.
Collaborator Contribution My partner has provided access to the staff, volunteers, CEO, trustees and visitors for portrait photography, interviews, PhD supervisory meetings. I have also been provided with temporary accommodation to be based on-site for a five-night artist residency during February 2020, this enabled me to learn more about the organisation, to photograph the equipment and be immersed in the environment of the protected 'International Dark Sky Park' where Kielder Observatory is located. These contributions have supported my research methodology since the start of my project.
Impact 'Wanderers' (photography), 'Dark Adaptation' (photography), 'Anatomy of a Northern Astronomer' (photography), Exhibitions (Sluice_ Gallery London, Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens.)
Start Year 2017
 
Description 'Art and Science' inter-disciplinary workshop, North East Photography Network / University of Sunderland 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Participating in an art-science workshop with both university and industry professionals from both the education and industry sectors, where I contributed to a working group where we collaborated to design/question scenarios where art and science practitioners can work collaboratively. This event generated potential research ideas to be explored by the North East Photography Network as part of their Arts Council England funded program: 'Observe, Experiment, Archive.'
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description 'Develop Graduate' symposium, North East Photography Network 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Undergraduate students
Results and Impact This professional development symposium was jointly organised by students at the University of Sunderland and the North East Photography Network. It supported students and professional photographers with methods and learned experiences of creative practitioners working in the field. I impacted the audience through a talk about the value of collaboration with other photographers and also Kielder Observatory.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL http://www.northeastphoto.net/?p=5010
 
Description 'Space Rocks! Art and Astronomy Family Day', Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I organised and ran public outreach 'meteorite photograms' workshops for participants (aged 7+) at Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens on 23rd November 2019, organised in partnership with the North East Photography Network, the Institute of Physics, University of Sunderland and Kielder Observatory. The purpose was to inspire the general public with how photographic practice can provide a new experience of 'outer space' by creating camera-less images of meteorites in a photographic darkroom. Undergraduate volunteers from the University of Sunderland were impacted through professional practice experience, and Kielder Observatory's educational team were provided with a new workshop design to communicate science through camera-less photography (they have since tested this workshop by transforming the observatory into a darkroom.)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://sunderlandculture.org.uk/events/space-rocks-art-and-astronomy-family-day/
 
Description 'Women & Power: Reflections by Helen McGhie' TORCH blog post, University of Oxford 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact I was invited to write a blog post reflecting on 'Women and Power: Redressing the Balance', a two-day conference (organised by the National Trust/University of Oxford) on heritage events and creative projects during the 2018 centenary of the Representation of the People Act that granted some women the right to vote. I reflected on how the talks/discussions impacted my PhD research, enabling me to question and redefine aspects of my research project (at the time, gender politics was central to my research.)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.torch.ox.ac.uk/article/women-power-reflections-by-helen-mcghie
 
Description Conference speaker at 'Living Research: The Urgency of the Arts', National Association for Fine Art Education (Royal College of Art) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Sharing my research paper 'Stargazing at the Invisible: Photography and the Power of Obscured Light' as part of the Collaboration strand on 15th March 2019, Royal College of Art. This conference was designed for the mutual benefit of the research students who presented and attended. The methods of others impacted my way of thinking and questions about my project challenged/influenced the design of my research.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://nafae.org.uk/events/living-research-urgency-arts
 
Description Contribution: 'Wear Experimenting' community art project (The Cultural Spring / North East Photography Network visit to Kielder Observatory) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Third sector organisations
Results and Impact Facilitated by The Cultural Spring and North East Photography Network, I engaged with workshop participants at Kielder Observatory (mostly home-schooled children and parent/guardians from Sunderland) through portrait photography and conversations about their experiences of outer space. The workshop was part of the 'Wear Experimenting' photography program led by Jo Howell.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL http://theculturalspring.org.uk/event/wear-experimenting/
 
Description Creative Lives talk, University of Sunderland 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Undergraduate students
Results and Impact Part of the 'Creative Lives' 2019 lecture series (artist professional practice talks) at the University of Sunderland, open to all staff/students across the university. I presented my research in the wider context of my creative practice, reflecting on my creative career. A large number of staff/students attended, which impacted student learning (some students reflected on my talk through blogs for their modules).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://wp.sunderland.ac.uk/uniofsunlib/2019/03/18/creative-lives-helen-mcghie/
 
Description Field/s peer group forum (The Photographer's Gallery) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact This was a professional working group where I shared my developing research practice with 12 other photography practitioners and visiting curators/professionals during a monthly 'peer group forum' networking and project support group at The Photographer's Gallery, London. The intention of the group was to provide a mutual benefit/critical exchange for regular members of the group. The forum made one public output: a group exhibition 'Field/s ONE', Sluice_ Gallery, London, 8th - 18th November 2018.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017,2018
URL https://www.artrabbit.com/events/fields-one-2018
 
Description Kielder Observatory newsletter article 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Third sector organisations
Results and Impact I wrote the article 'Kielder Observatory's Resident Artist' for inclusion in Kielder Observatory's Summer 2019 newsletter, sent to the organisation's mailing list. This introduced my fine-art photographic research to readers (including the general public, staff/volunteers and trustees) and tested the success of a new 'STEAM Slot' in the newsletter. The article was well-received by the trustees and provided a different way to communicate astronomy to the public.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019,2020
URL https://kielderobservatory.org/images/Newsletters/kieldera5_summer19.pdf
 
Description Speaker, 'Writing Skyscapes' workshops, Nottingham Trent University. 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Contributing to this cultural astronomy research project led by Daniel Brown (Nottingham Trent University) through talks at the following public outreach events:

- 'Writing Skyscapes: new perspectives', a two-day immersive writing workshop with a focus on poetry and photography, at Crewell Crags (Worksop) and Backlit Gallery, Nottingham (March 2019)
- 'Open Dome Special: Exploring Skyscapes' workshop, exhibition and talks, Nottingham Contemporary (February 2020)

My contribution has impacted both the public and the research group at Nottingham Trent University with new perceptions on how to visualise the night's sky, with an emphasis on the value of photographically capturing the physical/personal experience of dark skies, rather than high-definition images of the sky itself.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019,2020
URL https://www.ntu.ac.uk/research/groups-and-centres/projects/writing-skyscapes
 
Description Talk for photography students at UCLan 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Undergraduate students
Results and Impact The students engaged with my photographic research (in the context of professional practice), including recent work that I invited the audience to respond to through a questionnaire during the session. The talk encouraged students to consider research as an output for their practice (thinking about employability), while I gained useful feedback on my developing practice.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018