The “Jewels” of (My) Mars…
It’s a bit of a strange business this picture-making. Having downloaded a bunch of “raw” black and white images of Mars taken by a plucky little rover, or by Phoenix, you then have a choice. You can either a) try to create pictures that are as realistic as possible – painstakingly balancing the colours and levels and saturations and blah-blah-blahs minutely and repeatedly until you get it Just Right and your image looks like the official ones on all the NASA websites and in the big expensive large format cofee table books you drool over but never buy when you see them in Waterstones – or b) you can just play about with your image processing software until you get something that simply looks nice and makes you want to keep it, and look at it again and again and again, knowing that its colours aren’t real, they’re not actually there, but not caring, because it Just Looks Nice.
Me? I’m an option B person. Not just because I don’t have the hardware, software or skill (or patience!) to create the breathtakingly detailed and accurate panoramas people like James Canvin (see link on the right), do, but because… well, to be honest, that Mars isn’t “my” Mars. The NASA Mars is dramatic and desolate and noble, yes, a world of stark geology, sculpted and carved by mega-millennia of erosion by wind and ice, and I adore and love it, always have, always will… but My Mars is a more beautiful place, a more grandiose place. My Mars is a Big Country planet, with a sweeping soundtrack, technicolour sunsets and a wide, wide open sky an astronaut could (and one day will) stare up into and feel both totally lost and totally at home under…
So, when I create my “pretty pictures” – the ones you see on this very site – I’m not striving for accuracy. I leave accuracy to Image Mages like James, and others on Unmannedspaceflight.com. Compared to them I’m a mere humble apprentice… but when I’ve finished carrying buckets of water up the stairs, and mopping the floor, I turn on my computer and try to bring Mars to life. Sometimes – more often than not, if I’m honest – I fail, miserably, and the picture that comes out of the other side of my work is just that, a picture, another picture, of rocks, dust, stones, all orange and red… and lifeless.
But sometimes… sometimes it works, and when it does I feel like I’ve managed to blow some of the dust off Mars and reveal some of the beauty that hudes beneath. I make a picture that reaches into me, grabs me by the heart and says “Yes! That’s it! That’s what Mars is really like!”
And that’s exactly what’s happened with the image I made that I use as the banner up there for this new blog. It’s wrong, its colours bear – probably – no relation to reality whatsoever, but it’s gotten inside my head (and not just my head, others love it too, I’m happy to say) and I simply can’t stop looking at it.
To recap, what I did was combine a trio of raw black and white images taken by the Phoenix lander, high magnification images of a whole bunch of particles and grains of martian material. I then tweaked them away from their initial “false colour” to make them look more natural, but it was only a best-I-can-do-probably-miles-away-from-real-colour effort, and the finished image is probably wrong in too many ways to count or list here… but look at it… doesn’t that say something to you, too? Doesn’t that make you want to reach into your monitor and pluck one of those coloured whatever-they-ares out of the screen, hold it up in front of your eyes, turn it around slowly, tenderly, and see the light bouncing off it..?
I’m not saying “Yay for me!” I’m saying “Look at what Mars has to offer!” It’s more than just rocks, dust dunes and pink skies. There is beauty there, real artistic heartstring-plucking beauty, if only you look for it.
So what have I done? Well, of course I should have just left well alone and been happ with that. But that image has developed some kind of hold on me, so I’ve gone back and revisited it, messing about with ahem… skilfully manipulating and enhancing it even further, just because I want to, and can. And here’s what came out the other side (click on the image for a full size version)…
… and now I love it even more, I really do. It just looks so, well, beautiful! The grains and particles and crystals and whatever they are’s seem to be glowing as if lit from within, like a tiny pile of jewels dug up by Phoenix and exposed to the sunlight for the first time. Some look like tiny rough emeralds (but they’re not), others look like polished beads or drops of amber (but they’re not), still others look like minute nuggets of martian gold (but they’re definitely not!).
What are they, really? Oh, I wish I knew, I’m very much a frustrated geologist and it drives part of me nuts not knowing more about what I’m actually seeing there… but the bigger part of me doesn’t care THAT much, because as I have admitted many times before I’m unashamedly a “pretty pictures” person, and that’s definitely a pretty picture. Graphs and pie charts and database tables are fascinating and useful to planetary scientists I’m sure, but give me a picture showing a wide open martian landscape, a Barsoomian “Big Country” and I’m happy for the rest of the day.
So, there you go. My “Jewels” image is never going to feature in one of those previously referred to high-priced, large format coffee table books. It’s never going to appear on posters, or even on a NASA website. It’s wrong, Wrong, WRONG, an abomination of a picture in many ways, a Frankenstein’s Monster of an image that screams out “Evil!” to purists and real geologists. But I don’t care. It’s mine. I made it. But that’s not why I’m so pleased with it. I’m so happy with it because I feel like, for the first time in ages, light from My Mars has found a way of shining through the darkness and reminding me just why I feel such love for that planet.
That image is portrait of a teeny tiny part of MY Mars, the Mars that exists inside my head, and beats inside my heart, and has done for more than 35 years now. Pablo Picasso said: “I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them…” and I think I know what he meant; the colours of MY Mars aren’t necessarily the same ones NASA sees; the tones and hues of the sunset on MY Mars are probably richer, and deeper. The colours I put in my images are the ones I see and feel whenever I think about Mars. You see, on MY Mars an old rock becomes an ancient, proud stone sentinel, dusted and worn… on My Mars a patch of dust dunes collected on a crater floor becomes a sculpture, shaped lovingly by Mars’ relentless winds…
…and on My Mars a simple tiny pile of grit and dirt and dust becomes a spray of jewels, that sparkles and glitters and shines and whispers “Come to me, stop sending your plucky little rovers and landers and come to see me through your own eyes…”
I envy the men and women who will do that, I really do. But I also hope that they will look at Mars, when they travel there, with not just scientific, trained, cold eyes, but the eyes of an adventurer, a poet and an artist.
If they don’t, then what’s the point of sending people at all..?