Emily LakdawallaJan 14, 2014

Book Review: This Is Mars

This Is Mars is a stunning book that treats the HiRISE camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter as an art photographer, exploring the variety of shapes and patterns created by wind, water, impacts, and gravity on the Martian surface. The 150 black-and-white photographs, selected by Xavier Barral, are beautifully treated, spanning most of the book's huge pages, printed in rich, crisp detail. Many of the photos are dark, but when you peer into the shadows you can see plenty of detail in there, too -- and, after all, in many places Mars' soil actually is quite dark, the color of lava rock.

This is Mars page spread
This is Mars page spread Image: Aperture

The photos occupy the front half of the book, and there is no text accompanying them except for miniscule page numbers. Following the photos are 150 pages of text. A short essay by HiRISE principal investigator Alfred McEwen provides facts about the camera. A much longer one, "A Geology of Excess," by Francis Rocard, is a natural history of Mars, keyed to image page numbers to aid in the interpretation of the images. Content-wise, it's an excellent summary, but I found the language to be a bit overwrought in a way that may prevent non-scientists from understanding large swaths of it.

A timeline of Mars exploration followed by text captions for each of the 150 images, written by Nicholas Mangold, occupy the final few pages of the back of the book. These captions are great, both succinct and informative -- I'm not sure why Magnold's name is not listed with the other three authors on the book's cover.

This is Mars cover
This is Mars cover

With the captions so divorced from the images, the reader is required to consider the photos more as artworks than as scientific data. I have to admit that I can't help myself from interpreting the landforms, but the photos are arresting. My mind's eye flips from artist to geologist and back. With each turn of the page it's chiaroscuro that usually gets me first, bold shapes of light and dark. Then my eye switches to identifying paleo-flow directions or inverted topography. With an effort, I switch back to aesthetic appreciation, noting organic forms in the patterned surfaces -- then I switch back, remembering that these "organic" forms have nothing to do with life, but rather with patterns of wind and water and topography.

I find it strange that in what is clearly an art book there's no essay providing aesthetic interpretation of the images. The photos were, of course, not taken for aesthetic reasons, so if this is an art book then the art was performed by the person who explored the HiRISE library to select the beautiful photos. Barral penned a very brief preface, but apart from that the only window I have into his thinking in image selection is the images themselves. For me, that's not quite enough. I know that I consider these photos to be worthy of a spot on a gallery wall. Does the art world agree? Is there art here, or just accidental acquisitions of aesthetically pleasing pictures? Art or not, this book deserves a place on your coffee table.

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