Things We’d Have Missed without Them

Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2011 Prize

2011, Royal Observatory Greenwich/Lonelyleap

Damian, Nicole, Ole. Three amateur photographers who pointed their lenses to the sky and captured things we’d have missed without them. They’re recent prize-winners of the Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition 2011 – run by Royal Observatory Greenwich – and each has such a different view of space that it makes you think again about what you see in the night sky.

Nicole: the blue hour

‘I like to take pictures, and then go home and show everyone what they’re missing.’ – Nicole

A teenage girl, with the grammar and trainers to match, Nicole is openly in awe when she stares at the sky. On a path through long grasses and scrubland to the foot of rock formations that seem to be from Mars, not Earth, Nicole’s film feels like a sequence from a teenage adventure.

The middle section of her story is filled with snapshot of trinkets and messages from friends, the kind of things you have buried in a shoebox under your bed or that your parents ‘keep safe’. All of this warmth and energy seems to transfer to Nicole’s prize-winning photograph of a sky filled with stars in motion, surrounding a single point in the middle of the night.

Her delight is less tempered and more exuberant than Ole and Damian’s, but all share this faraway look. This look seems to place their eyes somewhere in the stratosphere, darting about the stars for the shot that will transmit just a fraction of its beauty.

Ole: the quest for aurorae

‘This is an effect of our sun getting angry.’ – Ole

While the single shots of each photographer are impressive, only Ole’s gets extended treatment. He’s produced time-lapse footage of the aurorae above Norway’s snowy mountains, a sight that dominates the first 15 seconds of his short film and overhangs the narrative that follows.

Ole’s sky is, simply, unearthly. The shimmering wisps of green that flick across it are the stuff of fiction, or dreams. They’re the bits our ancestors have looked at, mad with ignorance, running scared to form religions and small gods in tribute. The aurorae are unreal.

But he got it. He trapped it in a camera lens and brought it back for the rest of us. Nicole has collected her stars in motion and Damian’s got the eye of Jupiter’s storm and all three of them appear in film to make these weird sights very very human just by being willing witnesses, documentarians for the rest of us.

That it takes just five and a half minutes to feel that sensation across three super-short films is testament to the filmmakers and to the selection of these three stargazers.

Damian: far from everyday life

‘Between the front of my telescope - where the light is collected - and the surface of Jupiter, it’s around four hundred million miles.’ – Damian

It’s clear instantly that Damian’s role in the proceedings is more relaxed. He sits in a back garden – his perhaps – with a comparatively huge telescope at his command, in relative comfort compared to Nicole’s joyous yomp in the dark and Ole’s landscape-defying trek into the Arctic Circle.

The camera is in awe of the set-up, lingering on the scope and twin screens that his beasty bit of kit is hooked up to. The film even pauses for a moment to dwell on the piping hot cuppa he puts to his lips, completing the cosy view of space that Damian enjoys.

But this technical complexity is implied by shots of his darting eyes and nimble fingertips, poised to capture space. This is precision engineering. Damian is awaiting an alignment in the sky that happens only once, for three brief minutes, in the entire history of everything.

‘It’s an amazing place… to observe.’ – Damian

Damian and Ole both spend time by the water, that other vast and unexplored landscape. There’s a line in a Los Campesinos! track that extols the virtues of sitting by the sea, as it’s ‘a good place to think about the future’. Space too is inextricably linked to The Future.

Beside the sea the men look up, and in America’s heartland Nicole looks up too. But none of them are escaping from where they’re shooting. Nicole’s photo is warmer for its interplay with the terrain below, Ole’s more unnatural. Only Damian’s photograph seems divorced from the Earth below, but his short film roots him so firmly to pots of tea and garden sheds that you want to put him on a poster for the UK tourist board.

Where each of them looks up is linked to who they are and how they see the sky.

‘It’s telling you how small you are in this endless universe.’ – Ole

Close shots, static cameras, angles that force faces into unusual parts of the frame; there’s a shared aesthetic to these films that helps to unite the journey into space these three very different people are undertaking.

And there’s so much sky. Lonelyleap’s filmmakers have made films about wonderful, interesting humans while offering as much space to the air above as the frames permit. They do an incredible job of matching that backdrop to the face of the person looking up at it.

And they are all looking up. Three photographers, separated by oceans, security checkpoints and passport control. All three of them are looking into the night sky and seeing such different perspectives on everything out there that your view of terra firma seems to shift with them. Space is vast, but Earth is pretty big too.

Matthew Sheret