I Photographer: NASA Shooter Michelle Murphy

Shooting the U.S. space agency is out-of-this-world fun for this fine-art photographer

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Chris Lynch

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.

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Photo of the Surface Technology Team in the Simulated Lunar Operations Laboratory at NASA Glenn Research Center, 2006 (ISO 160; shutter speed 1/90; F11; Focal Length 35mm).NASA, Michelle M. Murphy
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Photo of the Space Power Facility, Test Chamber at NASA Plum Brook Station, 2007 (ISO 160; shutter speed 1/30; F5; Focal Length 14mm).NASA, Michelle M. Murphy
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Photo of the Acoustic Dome and the Nozzle Acoustic Test Rig at NASA Glenn Research Center, 2009 (ISO 160; shutter speed 1/100; F8; Focal Length 14mm).NASA, Michelle M. Murphy
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Photo of wire mesh tire from the Simulated Lunar Operations Laboratory in the lighting studio at NASA Glenn Research Center, 2009 (ISO 160; shutter speed 1/125; F32; Focal Length 60mm).NASA, Michelle M. Murphy
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Photo of ferroelectric oscillator in the lighting studio at NASA Glenn Research Center, 2009 (ISO 100; shutter speed 1/125; F40; Focal Length 60mm).NASA, Michelle M. Murphy
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Environmental portrait and Enhanced Zero-gravity Locomotion Simulator in the high bay at NASA Glenn Research Center, 2009 (ISO 200; shutter speed 1/100; F13; Focal Length 19mm).NASA, Michelle M. Murphy
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Photo of a fuel cell rig at NASA Glenn Research Center, 2009 (ISO 160; shutter speed 1/60; F16; Focal Length 20mm).NASA, Michelle M. Murphy
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Environmental portrait in the Space Mechanisms Facility at NASA Glenn Research Center, 2010 (ISO 200; shutter speed 1/125; F11; Focal Length 38mm).NASA, Michelle M. Murphy
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Photo of the Surface Mobility Research (left) at NASA Glenn Research Center, photo of lunar surface from NASA archive (right), 2010 (ISO 160; shutter speed 1/90; F11; Focal Length 14mm).NASA, Michelle M. Murphy
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Photo of test hardware inside of the 8x6 foot Supersonic Wind Tunnel at NASA Glenn Research Center, 2010 (ISO 200; shutter speed 1/125; F16; Focal Length 17mm).NASA, Michelle M. Murphy
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Photo of a Solar Array test at NASA Glenn Research Center, 2010 (ISO 200; shutter speed 1/125; F8; Focal Length 24mm).NASA, Michelle M. Murphy
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Photo of the Communication, Navigation, and Networking Reconfigurable Test-bed at NASA Glenn Research Center, 2011 (ISO 200; shutter speed 1/90; F14; Focal Length 24mm).NASA, Michelle M. Murphy
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Photo of Crew of STS-134 Astronauts visit baseball fans at a Cleveland Indians’ game, at Progressive Field, 2011 (ISO 250; shutter speed 1/90; F8; Focal Length 29mm).NASA, Michelle M. Murphy
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Photo of the Icing Research Tunnel at NASA Glenn Research Center, 2011 (ISO 200; shutter speed 1/125; F32; Focal Length 60mm).NASA, Michelle M. Murphy
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Photo of molecular electronics hardware in the lighting studio at NASA Glenn Research Center, 2011 (ISO 160; shutter speed 1/90; F11; Focal Length 14mm).NASA, Michelle M. Murphy
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Environmental portrait in the Thrust Vector Control, Subsystem Lab at NASA Glenn Research Center, 2012 (ISO 160; shutter speed 1/60; F13; Focal Length 17mm).NASA, Michelle M. Murphy
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Photo of flywheel hardware in the lighting studio at NASA Glenn Research Center, 2012 (ISO 100; shutter speed 1/80; F16; Focal Length 60mm).NASA, Michelle M. Murphy
Perceptual Beauty

Perceptual Beauty

Working in a contemporary culture where the attainment of beauty is paramount and science strives to engineer the ultimate look, Murphy’s photography and video art explores opposing positions in the relationship between consumption and rebellion of these ideals. What contemporary advertising and media culture continue to broadcast as acceptable and expected in female appearance, gives Murphy the material to examine the motivations of the wearer and the observer of beauty treatments and products. Inspired by Op Art, Scientific Imaging, and Third-Wave Feminism, Murphy produces macro close-ups of the adorned, treated body and beauty "tools". Through her processes of scientific observation and interpretation, she playfully uses beauty products as art materials going against their intended purpose to conceal or accentuate parts of the body. The studio environment provides a sexy and cooled down aesthetic reflected in modern advertising photography. Beauty in its contemporary context is Murphy's discourse. She shifts the “gaze” from the female as a subject to over-the-counter beauty maintenance products. Murphy repeats forms and magnifies the subject creating optical plays for the viewer to discern. The resulting images blend perceptual space and our cultural space...revealing the image of beauty as both an abstract and socially constructed consumable obsession.Michelle Marie Murphy
"Lashes in a Vacuum"

"Lashes in a Vacuum"

2012; metallic chromogenic print; 31in x 30in; from the series “Perceptual Beauty.”Michelle Marie Murphy
"Trans Manicure"

"Trans Manicure"

2011; metallic chromogenic print; 20in x 30in; from the series “Perceptual Beauty.”Michelle Marie Murphy
"Nail Polish Magnetism"

"Nail Polish Magnetism"

2012; metallic chromogenic print; 30in x 30in; from the series “Perceptual Beauty.”Michelle Marie Murphy
"Planet"

"Planet"

2012; metallic chromogenic print; 30in x 20in; from the series “Perceptual Beauty.”Michelle Marie Murphy
"Crater"

"Crater"

2012; metallic chromogenic print; 38in x 30in; from the series “Perceptual Beauty.”Michelle Marie Murphy
"Foundation: with less control"

"Foundation: with less control"

2011; metallic chromogenic print; 30in x 38in; from the series “Perceptual Beauty.”Michelle Marie Murphy
"Eyeliner Tracks"

"Eyeliner Tracks"

2012; metallic chromogenic print; 30in x 20in; from the series “Perceptual Beauty.”Michelle Marie Murphy
"Amorphous"

"Amorphous"

2012; metallic chromogenic print; 20in x 30in; from the series “Perceptual Beauty.”Michelle Marie Murphy
"Foundation to the Square: Chosen, after Albers"

"Foundation to the Square: Chosen, after Albers"

2011; metallic chromogenic print; 30in x 38in; from the series “Perceptual Beauty.”Michelle Marie Murphy
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