Experiencing times long past in the here and now, being there live when the automobile was invented or penicillin was discovered, when Cartier-Bresson took his first photo or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon… Let’s stay with the firmament: anyone who looks up at the starry night sky is looking millions of years back in time. For example, if we look at the second brightest star in the northern sky, Vega, we are looking about 25 light years into the past. That is how long it takes its light to reach us. The much-photographed North America and Pelican Nebula in the constellation of Swan is about 2000 light years away, while the spiral nebula of the Andromeda Galaxy is an incredible 2.5 million light years away. The 24-year-old photographer and video artist Jamal Ageli looks into the past with the Leica SL2-S and explores the physical and metaphysical dimensions of space in his Polaris project.
Let’s get into the idea that most of the stars we spy as points of light in the night sky are suns around which planets orbit. And even if hardly any of these planets offer the basis for life as we know it, we might get an idea of the “inconceivable dimension of the universe and the time horizon in which it all takes place”, says Jamal Ageli. On the one hand, the universe illustrates the “fact of our tininess, and at the same time the greatness of our existence”. So, is there anyone out there besides us? In the Terra-X interview with Dirk Steffens, the Austrian astronomer and astrophysicist Prof. Lisa Kaltenegger asks the question the other way round. She thinks it is very likely that we are not alone. But the distances – in time and space – are so great that actually meeting each other is quite unlikely.
Jamal, who is currently studying photography and film in The Hague, devotes himself to the cosmos in very different ways. Namely documentary, in the context of his work as a photographer for the European Space Agency (ESA), and artistically, in that he sees the universe as a canvas and creates creative images with the available light (photons). He calls this “Abstract Astronomy” and earns a lot of attention for it: the sun sometimes becomes a shimmering soap bubble and a cluster of stars becomes geometric splashes of colour on the canvas. “In documentary work, such as for the ESA or as an astrophotographer,” Jamal explains, “I am interested in the most objective, scientific photography possible. But then there are the things between us and the universe that cannot be made visible by naturalistic means. The temporal and spatial dimensions that we can’t comprehend and that fascinate us for that very reason.” In scientific documentation there are clear guidelines, but where, if not in the artistic realisation of astrophotography, should these constraints fall: “The question is: how do aesthetics arise, how does beauty arise? For me, that already has a philosophical quality.”
Jamal has very clear ideas when it comes to equipment: a telescope, of course, and a camera with outstanding dynamic range and the best noise behaviour – the Leica SL2-S with a backsideilluminated full-format sensor and a resolution of 24 megapixels. “For focusing and composition, I usually use ISO 12,800, sometimes, and just for setting, Enhanced Live View, which virtually pushes the sensitivity to insane heights and allows viewing of very low-light subjects. For the actual stacked shots, where the 200 to 300 images per night are superimposed in image processing and the noise can be digitally subtracted at the end, ISO 1600 has proven to be a very good compromise between detail and noise performance, which is consistently low on the SL2-S. Besides the technical refinements, I also find Leica as a brand very interesting, their philosophy of longevity, and that I can really rely on the camera. For example, I’ve had the camera freeze up on the telescope several times, but I can still rely on it to do everything and reliably deliver excellent image results.”
Where does your fascination for astrophotography come from?
I have already thought about this a lot, as I dedicated my thesis to this question, among others. For me personally, the technology behind my images is a fascinating approach to this kind of experience of nature. The photographic effort, especially the planning of the shots, is a rather strange mix of belief in technology, ritual and experience of nature. But apart from the technical, aesthetic or spiritual fascination for the cosmos, I find it equally interesting how subjectively such photographs are perceived by other people and what emotions and associations are aroused. That is also a major inspiration for me to deal with the subject artistically.
What do you think about when you look up at the starry sky above you and point your camera?
In the best case, once all the equipment is installed and programmed, I can just relax for a few hours and look at the stars while the camera exposes. It’s in moments like that, when everything is quiet and I can really engage with the sky and its absurdity, that I have the best experiences and thought experiments. It’s especially that strange feeling when you’re confronted with the limits of your own mind. But just as often, there are nights when I have to be much more concerned with the technical process because, once again, something doesn’t work out. The whole telescope set-up already has some sources of error, and sometimes the technology doesn’t want to go my way. At some point, however, I started to draw inspiration for experiments from these mistakes and to consciously use them artistically. But no matter if everything goes smoothly or not, I am extremely happy to be able to call this kind of photography my work and thus correspond to my nature as a “night owl”. (laughs)
What are the biggest challenges?
When it comes to conveying facts, background knowledge, circumstances, etc., photography as a medium always has a somewhat difficult time and is dependent on accompanying text. A picture can inspire people and offers visual access to the subject, but when it comes to presenting
complicated topics in a sustainable and understandable way, words are perhaps more helpful. This is also where I see the clear advantage of multimedia approaches and the now seamless transition from photo to video to CGI (Computer Generated Imagery): storytelling that works on different levels. I myself like to experiment with visual realisation and fictional elements. Some projects need more of a documentary approach to communicate accurately, others more of a fictional approach. There is one aspect of documentary astrophotography that I would like to highlight: Astronomical images are generally associated with doubt, on the one hand because the subject and the object depicted are inconceivable and difficult to imagine anyway, and on the other hand because images of space are often perceived as renderings, CGI or other digital manipulation.
What are your favourite subjects in astrophotography?
There are so many interesting subjects in the sky – some days I am the happiest photographer when I can just photograph clouds. But if I had to choose between astronomy and “deep space”, it would indeed be objects that are extremely far away and that push my equipment and imagination to their limits. The thought experiment of how far away an object actually is is challenging. But even in our Milky Way, which is not millions of light years away, there are exciting things to discover. Gas nebulae or star clusters have their very own technical and aesthetic properties that can be depicted in different ways. Personally, I find star clusters very exciting, these almost perfectly spherical structures of hundreds of thousands of stars bound together by gravity. The fact that nature can create such geometric shapes is simply fascinating to me and really leaves me speechless.
We will continue to accompany Jamal Ageli when it soon comes to taking his photography into space itself, and what roles – in addition to Leica – the laser specialists at the Ernst Abbe University of Applied Sciences Jena and the technology producer Heraeus play in this.
JAMAL AGELI (*1997): The German photographer and video artist lives between Frankfurt/Main and Amsterdam. He works for various commercial clients, including ESA, and has already shown his work in several international exhibitions. He is currently doing his Bachelor of Design in Photography at the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague.