Jeppson Idea Lab: Michael Benson
Hubble Space Telescope, March and July 2005, and European Southern Observatory 2.2 meter telescope, La Silla, Chile, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003.
Image created by Michael Benson in 2008 by combining data from the NASA-ESA Hubble Space Telescope and from the European Southern Observatory 2.2 meter telescope, La Silla, Chile.
Chromogenic print, 2012
Stoddard Acquisition Fund, 2013.4
This photograph of the Carina Nebula, recently acquired for the collection, is a unique point of contact between contemporary art and science. One of the overriding questions provoked by viewing this image in an art museum is, "When is data art?" It is a question closely tied to the history of photography and the evolving role of technology in image production. While humans have been fascinated with the sky since prehistory, a vista with this level of detail has only been available to us quite recently. The seamless photographic mosaic on this wall combines the talents and imaginations of astronomers and engineers using both space and land-based telescopes with sophisticated cameras, and artist Michael Benson.
The Carina Nebula, an area of space about 10,000 light years away, is among the brightest parts of the Milky Way visible from Earth. It is an area teeming with new and dying stars—clouds of dust and gas, eroding dust pillars sculpted by radiation from powerful stars, and lobes of interstellar material.
Working with archives primarily used by planetary scientists and astronomers, Benson's explorations are focused on aesthetic, not scientific discoveries. Taking raw image data acquired for research purposes, Benson edits, combines, composites, and repurposes it for his photography. Due to the limitations of our visible light spectrum, official image releases from the Hubble Space Telescope are frequently presented in "representative" colors. These colors are quite different from the actual hues humans would be able to perceive if looking upon the Carina Nebula themselves.
In order to better represent how the human eye might see the nebula—albeit enhanced by the power of the telescope to gather vastly more light than our unassisted senses ever could—Benson has replaced the false-color information of the original Hubble image with true-color data derived from lower-resolution Earth-based observations. In this way, he retains the incomparable detail of the Hubble mosaic composite while enhancing Carina Nebula's color accuracy by utilizing the visible-light wavelength observations recorded by the European Southern Observatory between 1999 and 2003.