In terms of sheer technical brilliance, the James Webb Space Telescope will be the largest, most powerful space telescope ever made when it finally launches in October next year. The Webb, as it is also known, was initially slated to be launched in March 2021, but as the US space agency Nasa confirmed in July, the covid-19 pandemic has forced a change of plan.
The pandemic, however, hasn’t changed much for 51-year-old Chris Gunn, a Nasa-contracted photographer who has been documenting the Webb’s journey for more than a decade. Simply put, the Webb is the successor of the Hubble Space Telescope, which has helped astronomers decode some of the most complex questions in the universe over the last three decades. The James Webb Space Telescope will go a step further, with its longer wavelength coverage and enhanced sensitivity. As its website explains: “The longer wavelengths enable Webb to look much closer to the beginning of time and to hunt for the unobserved formation of the first galaxies, as well as to look inside dust clouds where stars and planetary systems are forming today.”
Earlier this week, the telescope also completed a crucial environmental testing, which assures that it will endure the "deafening noise, and the jarring shakes, rattles and vibrations" that might occur during lift-off.
Gunn’s photographs depicting the stage-by-stage construction of the telescope and the scientists behind it are, he says, almost in the realm of science fiction. One such picture also won him the Nasa photographer of the year 2019 award in the documentation category earlier this year. In a Google Meet interview, Gunn talks about the challenges of such a big project, and what makes the Webb so special. Edited excerpts:
You have been documenting the Webb for more than a decade. What has that experience been like?
It has been the highlight of my career, very fascinating. One, because I was there from the beginning. So, I was there when they were just small parts arriving at the Goddard Space Flight Center. I have seen it grow into the massive observatory that it is. Of course, it hasn’t been launched yet but just seeing the engineering go from pad drawings to actually see the hardware arrive, to see the hardware assemble and then run through all these tests has just been an amazing experience, especially for someone who has such an interest in engineering, science and astronomy. I am a photographer but I have all of these other interests. This has been like a dream come true.
What were the most challenging bits of photographing this mammoth project?
This project really demanded super-accurate photography. Not just in colour balance and tone, exposure, but also in distortion. To really relay the beauty of Webb, you have to have distortion-free images. Most camera lenses produce distortion. So after shooting for a while, I started to hunt for camera systems and lenses that will provide the least amount of distortion and that’s when I settled on the Hasselblad. It really was medium format (a camera that has a larger sensor than a 35mm, or full-frame DSLR camera) that I was looking for…. So the biggest challenge for me was literally binding combinations of camera bodies and lenses that produce the least amount of distortion and had the longest tonal range so that I could produce images that had a lot of impact, clarity and accuracy.
Also, finding lighting systems that were powerful but portable. I also add a lot of light to my images. All these things came together and helped me build a sort of an aesthetic, a style, if you will, to show the telescope for the public.
Were you supposed to take any precautions in the assembly areas, clean rooms at the Goddard Space Flight Center and other locations?
The Goddard Space Flight Center clean room (the area used to integrate and test space hardware) is called the SSDIF (Space Systems Development and Integration Facility). That is the largest clean room of its class in the world. The precautions that I needed to take were the exact same that all of the technicians and engineers had to take. I wore the same clean suit, I had to get my camera equipment cleaned…it goes through a process where it’s wiped down with IPA (Isopropyl alcohol) and it’s blown off with compressed hydrogen. Same for the lighting equipment as well.
Could you describe the atmosphere and experience of working with the scientists and engineers against such a technical backdrop?
Being around this technology and the people who are working on this—I am in awe of scientists and engineers, in general. But seeing this come together, it’s almost science fiction. It’s almost as if it’s not real because it is such a mammoth project, like you said before, that seeing all of this, these parts, come together to form this observatory.... It has taken a long time, but to me it’s almost like watching the pyramids being built or watching the Enterprise from Star Trek being built. It’s a one-of-a-kind observatory and nothing like this has ever been assembled on Earth. It’s really breathtaking to be in the presence of the telescope itself and to be around the technicians and engineers.
Clicking a person is one thing but getting the most powerful space telescope ever built into one frame must be something else. How have you evolved as a photographer in these last 10-11 years?
It’s a bit like learning how to run a marathon. You have to train and you find yourself getting better incrementally. I think that I had a lot of training prior to photographing Webb but I never photographed a project quite this big, in this way. So, I had to get better. When I first started, for example, I didn’t incorporate a lot of external lighting. Then, once I realized that this project was going to change the world of astronomy and how the world sees the universe, in general, I realized how important it was to bring my A-game and started studying other photographers who shoot science and engineering and started incorporating different techniques, started using lighting. I had to evolve tremendously as a photographer.
That’s another reason why I decided to move up to medium format. I had shot a medium-format film years ago and had always loved the different look it gave you. Again mentioning the distortion, but there’s also a perspective that medium format gives you that full-frame 35mm can only approximate. So, it was important for me to reintroduce myself to a medium format and digital medium format this time, which also required a little bit of a learning curve, working with the lower cameras, etc. In terms of evolution, I have gone from being a good photographer to a much better photographer.
How important was the lighting factor since you were essentially working in a closed environment away from any source of natural light?
The lighting in clean rooms is flat. It’s bright, but it’s extremely flat. It lacks a lot of dimension. When we add a single light, we then introduce shadow and highlights. So you get to have more of a three-dimensional look to your images. The goal was always to create images that sort of jumped off the page, where Webb jumped off the page or off the screen. The clean suits also generated a particular feel. With flat lighting, the clean suits are just these white suits but when we add the lighting, the clean suits that the engineers and technicians wear start to take more of a three-dimensional (look and feel)—the humans themselves start to jump off the page. So, once I started to add the light, I started to see how the images came to life and it was really remarkable.
Space and astronomy gather worldwide interest but what elements have you had to add to the pictures to make them more appealing to everyone?
All of the images you see are selections from various shoots. So I pick the images that would make my daughter—who’s not a huge science fan—or my wife go “wow!” There’s something about the placement of the telescope itself, the placement of the individuals. These are elements of composition that make an image stand out.
So the selection process, after I do a shoot, is very critical as well. I scan through the images and I find the ones that really stand out. There are a couple of images where I might have asked people to stay where they were, but generally I didn’t ask people to move into images. I generally ask people to ignore the camera. But in the process of selecting, I have to pick images that have the balance in terms of composition, the lighting is striking the telescope and people perfectly so that the images just have that something—it’s almost intangible. There’s a processing that I go through, which sort of mimics the look and feel of a science fiction film, with the high contrasting colours, the full-tone range images... so that even someone who’s not interested in astronomy, science or technology, for that matter, will look at that image and want to know more about it. That’s the goal.