Cosmology has been a keen interest of civilisations past and present, a practice that extends to times before recorded history. The ancient man most probably looked up at the skies and asked probing questions about space and our origins, a theme that still captivates us today, and where answers have not been found we’ve often resorted to using our imagination.
This follows the line of thought Alexandra Lethbridge takes when addressing space in her self-published photobook The Meteorite Hunter. She describes the work as an archive of a search for meteorites and the places they come from, a work based on the impulse to search for evidence of lunar visitors within our everyday landscape.
Arran Milne recently corresponded with Alexandra Lethbridge to discuss how she approaches the subject of space in her work, and where she draws the line between fact and fiction when exploring the extraterrestrial.
AM: Arran Milne
AL: Alexandra Lethbridge
AM: Where did the idea for The Meteorite Hunter come from?
AL: Space and science fiction have always appealed, although not in the most common sense. I wasn’t a sci-fi fan; I liked the narratives and possibilities that emerge from ideas about space. When making the work, Space acts as a metaphor for this place where I can explore the relationship between reality and the imagined. Space, the universe, the cosmos, they all have inconsistencies between what we know and what we’ve actually seen. I’m interested in the hesitations of our perception when we’re presented with something that we understand, but at the same time have never experienced. Space offers a realm of the imagined but coupled with enough concrete fact that it’s still believable.
AM: The title of your work The Meteorite Hunter suggests a person. Who is the meteorite hunter?
AL: A meteorite hunter is a person whose occupation it is to find fragments of space rocks in our environment. In order to bring to light these small segments of meteors they endure a search through our everyday landscape in the hope of finding clues of celestial company. Their job is to search amongst the mundane for a trace of the sublime; something that comes from another place and has roots in another planet. The Meteorite Hunter was this fantastic way of becoming a meteorite hunter myself and exploring these ideas.
AM: The series plays with the notion of the meteorite as a metaphor for the fantastical hidden within the everyday. What is it about space rocks that captivated your imagination?
AL: It’s the idea they come from this other place. They’re like small bits of evidence to this illusory realm that we never really get to see.
AM: So much of what we know about outer space is mediated through optical devices like telescopes, TV-footage and photographs. Is it the mystery that comes from this distant perception of space that interests you?
AL: Absolutely. I’m interested in the realm space opens up. It allows me to work with ideas of fiction in a completely factual way. Most of us in our lifetimes won’t be able to visit outer space, so we rely on the imagery that’s presented to us. NASA actually process images of the surface of planets altering the colours so it allows our eyes to understand what we see in terms of what we know. I’m fascinated with the thought that the reality of space could be something completely obscure we don’t understand and can’t process. It’s an existence we don’t know and can’t recognise, and when creating work I can imagine how the reality might look and in turn how our reality might become un-recognisable.
AM: In your work you juxtapose archival images from NASA, postcards, rocks, research material and a literary reference; initially it feels somewhat like a journal or record of a search. Was this your intention for the book?
AL: In the beginning I was collecting and making all sorts of things, such as hand made rocks from Plaster of Paris, a number of minerals, and a magic lantern slide-projector. I was also sourcing images from archives and using this reference material to make new work. I went through the process of searching, trying to decide how to represent the sublime and what constitutes the mundane. I want the work to reflect this process of accumulation and reflection and in the end the best way to do this was to show the collection in a book.
AM: You’ve divided the book into three chapters with headings implying a meteoroids journey until its eventual impact on earth: “Meteoroid Orbiting”, “Meteor Falling Rocks” and “Meteorite Impact”. Can you share your thoughts behind this editing devise?
AL: The chapters were a way to signal the journey of a meteorite but also for pointing to some of the ideas behind the work. I deal with notions of reality and fiction and in this instance space was the ideal representation of the fictional landscape I was looking for. Space became the definition of the sublime and surreal and Earth acted as the concrete and factual. The meteorite itself became a bridge between the two so introducing this journey into the chapters seems to make sense.
AM: At the beginning and the end of the book is the key to revealing the content of the photographs. How do these panels alter our reading of the series?
AL: These hidden panels tell the viewer exactly where I got the rocks from, how much they cost and how I made the image. They are the big reveal, they change the perception of the work a lot, which is why I made the design decision to hide them in the cover of the book. I want people to look at the book with a certain curiosity and wonder – at least for enough time to look through the main section, then the panels may confirm the veracity of the images. I’m interested in that hesitation that occurs in between, the uncertainty that leads to searching for the text panel to know the origin of the rocks for certain.
AM: Where did you find the meteorite rocks for the images?
AL: I got the meteorites in a book from EBay. When it arrived through the post it had a home print out certificate of authenticity. I realise there is a good chance it may not be a meteorite but this is all part of the appeal. I’m presenting these artifacts from gift shop rocks and found stones as potentially sublime objects with the idea that they could be regarded as extraterrestrial, and in turn become a more weighted object. The rock could in fact be nothing more than an ordinary rock. Or it may be a meteorite? I wouldn’t want to know.
AM: This development challenges the viewers to re-interpret the origin of the rocks in the images. Does the photographer have a responsibility to their audience to tell the truth.
AL: The photographer’s responsibility is to engage the viewer but does not necessarily need to be truthful. Within my work I tend to reveal rather than conceal, since it’s not my intention to fool but rather disguise. There are plenty of photographers who do conceal the truth – but I work with elements of doubt that can come from being unaware of the familiar.
The Meteorite Hunter was shortlisted for the First Photobook Prize (2014) in the 4th edition of the Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation Awards announced at the New York Art Book Fair and exhibited in November last year as part of the Parisian fair. The work has also featured in the Format Festival in Derby under this year’s theme Evidence.