Shooting the U.S. space agency is out-of-this-world fun for this fine-art photographer
How does a fine-art photographer wind up at NASA? As a student at the Cleveland Institute of Art, I was interested in how the public hasn’t heard much about the space program, and I wanted to celebrate women in the industry. As part of my thesis project, I went to space camp for adults. An engineer I knew told me about the photo lab at Glenn Research Center, and I interviewed the day after my thesis review.
What do you typically shoot?
Everything from corporate, visa, or passport portraits, to event photography, hardware research, facilities, and employees at NASA. These people are doing pages and pages of research and reports related to aeronautics and space exploration, and it’s my job to summarize their work into one image. When I can direct a photograph that involves a person, the project they’re working on, and the facility that it was tested in, that’s my favorite kind of shoot.
Is there a house style at NASA?
There’s certainly a NASA aesthetic. They like NASA blue—it’s like an LED blue—and lots of depth of field. Researchers want to be able to see every aspect of their project, and you can zoom into any of my images and see how that piece of equipment was engineered. I want to make artistic NASA photography, so I figure out how I can contribute to their aesthetic while including my own perspective.
How important is lighting?
I often shoot in labs filled with electrical equipment and cords that I can’t unplug or even touch, so I have to use lighting to emphasize certain aspects while making sure others fall into the background. In one image of a lunar wheel, I used lights to sculpt its three-dimensionality—its exoskeleton, mesh surface, and tread. I photograph a lot of metallic objects in metallic facilities, which is difficult lighting-wise, but the challenge makes it fun. Shooting for depth of field requires quite a bit of lighting.
What gear do you tote?
I always carry a Nikon D3x, 24–70mm f/2.8G and 17–35mm f/2.8G ED Nikkor lenses, and two Nikon SB-900 Speedlights. My work also sometimes requires a 60mm f/2.8D AF macro and a 70–200mm f/2.8G, Broncolor heads and power packs, colored gels, and remote flash triggers. For big shoots on location, I use power-pack strobes.
What postproduction do you do?
It can vary, but I do quite a bit. There are things that don’t need to be in the picture, like dirt, scuff marks, and cords. I’ve even removed a post-testing patina from hardware to make it look like it did before the test.
How does your NASA work inform your fine-art projects?
NASA led me to macro photography. I’m currently exhibiting and publishing a portfolio of macro images of beauty tools, and scientific observation and interpretation have inspired how I study the beauty industry. I use makeup as a medium, conducting experiments in my studio. The images look like lunar landscapes, atmospheres, planets, and sometimes, the ballistics work that they do here. Maybe not being able to play with materials at NASA has carried over into my personal work.
Would you travel to space?
In a heartbeat. The lunar landscape relates so much to photography. A lot of the later Apollo images are shot in color—but you forget that until you see the American flag.
After nearly nine years, fine-art photographer Michelle Murphy is still over the moon about working at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, OH. See her photos online at michellemariemurphy.com and PopPhoto.com/murphy.