Mars Survey Photographs

Photographs Showing Landscape, Geological,
and Other Features of Portions of the Planet Mars
– May 2004

A Portfolio of Gelatin Silver Prints

Between 1896 and 1875, a series of expeditions sponsored by the US Government travelled to the farthest parts of the planet Mars. Traveling by on foot and by mule train, photographers made careful views showing the grandeur and potential of the new lands. This portfolio offers some of their finest work to the general viewer.

The photographs in this series are experiments in visualization.  They use a combination of traditional photography, data manipulation, three-dimensional modeling, and digital compositing to create an image of a landscape.  The result does not announce itself as a simulation, nor does it attempt to perfectly fool the eye.  To picture the Martian landscape is to combine empirical data, theoretical assumptions, the eager imagination, and all our earth-bound ideas of what defines a ‘place’.  Thus these landscapes picture a Mars that is halfway between a rocky volcanic planet and an arcadian expanse in the style of American western landscape photography.

The mountain ranges and massive land-forms in these images are those of Mars:  Sensed remotely by satellite, they exist numerically in NASA’s data archives.  They are reconstituted here with a skin of rich photographic imagery stretched over them.  To me, that also means a skin of history and a very specific way of regarding the value and aesthetic charge of landscape.  The fact that I have left in (or introduced) vegetation, even fences, does nothing to undermine the empirical (and very real) ‘Mars-ness’ of the images.  How much less real are they than the Mars Rovers’ pixellated, filtered, beamed-back images?  At what point do our notions about what the landscape is for start to fill in the gaps in what we see when we picture such an impossibly distant (abstract) place?

These images are traditionally processed gelatin-silver prints, toned with selenium.  The negatives were generated from digital files that combined large format photographic work with digital rendering of three-dimensional data.  The work proceeded with assistance from students of Reed College funded by a Ruby Grant for collaborative research.


The original prospectus for the Mars Survey project is below. (Download as PDF):


Thanks to Laura Diamond, Drew Skillman, and John Waugh