Shooting Space on Planet Earth

Photographer Alexander Missen is granted rare access inside the German Aerospace Centre where he captures the lab in a way not often seen.

© Alexander Missen, from the series, Common Futures

I took this photograph in the German Aerospace Centre or Deutsches Zentrum für Luft und Raumfahrt (DLR as it is known) in Oberpfaffenhofen, just outside of Munich. The site is home to the German Space Operations Centre including the control centre for the Columbus laboratory module of the International Space Station. The picture shows a demonstration unit of that module, and some kind of variant of an Orlan space suit. 

Berti Meisinger - who is European Space Agency (ESA) mission director for the Columbus module - and I emailed back and forth for a while before going there to shoot. I spent two sessions at DLR photographing various parts of the facility. Berti and everyone there were so generous with their time. 

Being at DLR was an incredible experience and the catalyst for Common Futures, the project I am working on now. I remember being scared of screwing up because I knew it was a privilege to be there and not something that would be easy to organise again. It was also fairly mind-boggling to be in a place where people come to work and figure out how to operate part of a space station.

The lighting is environmental. There was a big diffused window at the back, which gave a nice soft fill, and I intentionally overexposed the shot a little so that the white would render more cleanly. Initially I framed the picture much wider than the final picture is now, but after shooting a few frames I decided to tighten the composition a little so the curved edge of the ISS module nearly touches the right-hand edge of the frame. I’m on a ladder - probably four or five feet higher than eye level - which lends the effect of shortening the foreground.

There weren’t any major practical difficulties beyond the time it took to get access. As with a lot of the pictures I make, I paused for ten minutes or so during the process to think about how best to create my image. There is often a composition I am drawn to automatically and I normally shoot a few frames like that and then stop to think about what I really want that picture to express - what should be included, what shouldn’t, what should be given prominence, and so on. When people have given up their time and helped me to negotiate access I always feel a bit of extra pressure to get it right. In those situations I usually shoot two or three options for a picture, just to make sure I know I have a choice when editing.

Hopefully the image articulates the fragile relationship we have with things like space exploration in that even when it’s ‘real’ we can only access or understand it through imagery. Here the suit is real but looks almost cartoonish, and the ISS module looks real but is for demonstration; there is a kind of disconnect between these two primary objects.

I also think of this image as a play on the ‘exiting the airlock’ trope in science fiction. When the astronaut leaves the ship or space station for the first time in a work of fiction it is always such a loaded moment. It’s almost like that action is a distillation of thousands of years’ of human exploration. This is of course true for actual astronauts like those on the ISS who exit the station to conduct repairs and experiments. The closest most of us will get to that is some form of dramatised version of that event, so I really enjoy the fact that these two demonstration objects are almost acting this out. 

The images I like looking at are usually ones that are considered arrangements of symbols rather than exercises in pure aesthetics, and I think how I work reflects that. I don’t always necessarily stick to the same methods, but I do enjoy pictures that lay the information out to the viewer in a simplistic way. I’m not the kind of person to carry a camera with me everywhere I go. Some people swear by that and do a really good job of photographing instinctively, but it’s never really worked for me. I much prefer considering what I’m trying to get at, planning, and then going to shoot.

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Alexander Missen is a British photographer who lives and works in London. An exhibition of his work is on show at Francesca Maffeo Gallery in Leigh-on-Sea until 28 October 2017. Alexander will be giving a talk about his work at the gallery on Saturday 07 October 2017.

Gemma Padley is a freelance writer and editor on photography, based in the UK.

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