Paroma Mukherjee, Head, National Photography Desk, picks her favourite read of 2021
Over a dinner conversation with friends some months ago about my long-running interest in space, its explored landscapes and their imagery, I was led to this extraordinary book of photographs. For well over 15 years now, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has been beaming back high resolution imagery of Mars’ surface using the HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera and This Is Mars (Alfred S McEwen, Francis Rocard and Xavier Barral; Published by Aperture) is a spectacular visual atlas of that. Back in 2005, the HiRISE was the largest and most powerful camera ever sent to another planet. Each black & white photograph provides a viewing range that’s about six kilometres wide, taken at a flight level of about a kilometre.
An interesting editorial decision in this book is that the original viewing range of each image has been retained. There are no zoomed-in photographs, and this lets the reader acknowledge and imagine the surrounding area and context for each image. Impeccably edited and printed, each page is a historical study of all that has ensued on Mars’ surface given the volcanic, fluvial and glacial effects that have carved its topography over several billion years.
French planetologist Francis Rocard’s essay in the book is an excellent primer on the evolution of the planet, especially in its revelation of the myth of “Martians,” that seems to have benefitted from the easily detectable bright appearance of Mars’ polar regions from Earth. The images of these regions (pages 134-182) are an especially dazzling, artistic series that highlight the formation of carbonic snow (often mistaken for ice) on both poles. The geomorphology of the 150 photographic plates that are produced in the book are overwhelming in their microscopic texture and aesthetic. The book attempts to, and succeeds to a large extent, to steer the reader towards a philosophical consideration of a still but dynamic life on Mars, much before it manifested on our own planet. The future of HiRISE remains to be seen, but considering it has mapped an ancient landscape at an unimaginable resolution, we can only hope to learn from its outcome as we did from early cave paintings on Earth— that where we came from is crucial to securing where we go from here.