The Shed

Science and art

Kaye Davis talks to Andrew Campbell about exploring out-of-this-world photograph­y and how he captured Cosmic Bubble

- Kaye Davis

Something I have always loved about photograph­y is the way it allows us to capture and see what we wouldn’t normally see with the naked eye. It was this that drew me to dabble in the world of microscopi­c photograph­y, including using a scanning electron microscope, and radiograph­y (better known as X-ray) a number of years ago. Through this interface between science and art, we are able to explore and reveal the world’s smallest, and normally unseen, wonders.

Several visual pioneers have transcende­d the worlds of science and art — to name a few: Harold Edgerton, renowned for his Milk Drop Coronet and his image of the bullet shot through an apple; Albert Richards for his amazing floral radiograph­s; Anna Atkins for her botanical cyanotypes; Eadweard Muybridge, with his study of animal and human movement; Rose-Lynn Fisher and her microscopy of the bee; and Rob Kesseler with his beautiful scanning electron photograph­s of flowers.

Exploring these worlds highlights the power of photograph­y, its unique and magical ability to provide us with images and insight into what exists within our world and beyond. In turning his eyes (and camera) upwards, that is exactly what multi-awardwinni­ng photograph­er and Australian Institute of Profession­al Photograph­y (AIPP) Grand Master Andrew Campbell is now doing as he explores the wonders of the night skies, searching for and photograph­ing what are known as ‘deep-sky objects’ (DSOs).

He’s a recent convert; Campbell’s adventures in astrophoto­graphy came about by accident after a friend brought around an old telescope thinking that it would be great for him to use to show his kids the moon. After a month or so, the children lost interest, but Campbell was hooked, and there commenced what was to be a very steep learning curve, not to mention the outpouring of thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment and software.

Partially sparked by an interest in sci-fi, Campbell’s ongoing interest in astrophoto­graphy comes largely from the actual experience of being out there under the stars on a clear night.

“You can’t help but ask yourself the big questions about life and the universe and everything. I’m a Christian, but, whatever you believe, you can’t help but be moved by the sheer scale of what’s above. To be able to document in an artistic way some of the DSOs is, for me, a chance to glorify God’s creations, an opportunit­y to express myself both creatively and technicall­y,” he explained.

There are a number of challenges with astrophoto­graphy, the first found in choosing a DSO that is not overly popular. For this, Campbell pores over galactic catalogues and planetariu­m apps, which he described as “the equivalent of Google Maps for the sky”, to identify unique celestial elements. Cosmic Bubble (above), is one such example, and his image is one of only 12 known photograph­s of this “extremely faint, relatively unknown” DSO.

The hunt for Cosmic Bubble has been Campbell’s greatest challenge, as it is incredibly hard to find and insanely dim. However, a 20-minute search did yield what he described as the “barest hint of an outline of the bubble”. His initial excitement rapidly diminished when he realized it was going to take a lot of exposure. A second challenge is the need for incredible patience and technical knowledge, which Campbell seems to have in abundance. Requiring a great deal of pre-planning, this starts with composing the DSO for the most dramatic effect.

The acquisitio­n of Cosmic Bubble took over a month, and, during this time, Campbell captured around five nights’ worth of data through numerous exposures, each lasting up to 30 minutes, using three different wavelength filters (R, G, and B). The final stage required combining many of the exposures, a process he described as an art in itself.

Campbell’s image of Cosmic Bubble (catalogued as Sharpless 308) is a beautiful example of photograph­y’s connection with both science and art. Scientific­ally, it is a shell of ionized oxygen, 60 light years across; a nebula, with an estimated age of 70,000 years, “blown by the fierce winds of the huge Wolf–Rayet star at the centre”, and, “like any good bubble, this one will eventually burst and disperse its stellar material into the surroundin­g space, then explode as a supernova.” The image could just as easily hang on the wall as an art piece.

In addition to the considerab­le technical know-how needed, it’s the creative aspect that really makes Campbell’s celestial photograph­s stand out in the crowd. After only three years as an astrophoto­grapher, he has already received recognitio­n for his blend of science and art, including being awarded 2015 AIPP Science, Wildlife and Wild Places Photograph­er of the Year and winning the Deep Sky category of the 2015 David Malin Awards.

You can follow Campbell’s astro adventures on Facebook — search for ‘Andy’s Astropix’.

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