American photographer Roland Miller grew up following all the space launches. When he was hired as a professor at a college near Cape Canaveral, the center of spacecraft launch sites, this childhood interest reemerged and he was inspired to photograph the now abandoned space program and launch sites of the Cold War Era. The result is Abandoned in Space, a series of photographs and a book which are both beautiful representations and insightful documentations of the space race era.
Interview: Yetkin Nural
Can you tell us a bit about the background of Abandoned in Place? How did the idea form, and what kind of a process led to the project?
I was working as a photography instructor at Brevard Community College (Now Eastern Florida State College) in Cocoa, Florida. Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and the Kennedy Space Center are only a few miles from the college. I received a phone call from an environmental engineer who was remodeling an old office building on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The building included an old photography lab, and it contained left over photography chemicals. He requested I help him determine how to properly dispose of the photography chemicals. In the process of that work, he took me to Launch Complex 19, the launch site of the Gemini space missions. I knew instantly I wanted to photograph this launch site. It soon became apparent that there were a number of other deactivated launch complexes that could be photographed. It still took two years to gain the type of access I needed. Once I was able to show the NASA and Air Force officials the kind of work I was doing, they graciously allowed me to continue the project.
While browsing through the images on the website, my initial reaction was conflicted. The images are representations of both the future and the past. As you were exploring sites all over the states, how did you feel in the field?
It was a very humbling experience to see these sites that had once been the focus of the world’s attention that now lay dormant and decaying. It made me think about the temporal nature of life and how something once prized can become insignificant in a relatively short period of time. It was also very exhilarating to me. I grew up watching the launches from these complexes and lived and breathed space exploration as a child. I felt very lucky to have had the chance to visit and photograph these sites. It was also evident that most of these historic facilities would not last much longer. Many of the launch complexes on Cape Canaveral are located within a hundred yards or so of the Atlantic Ocean. The salt-water environment, coupled with the hot and humid climate and harsh sun, deteriorate the metal structures rapidly. I felt a sense of responsibility to make the project represent the current conditions of these launch pads, and also reflect the history that had been made there. These launch sites also held the promise of further exploration. The fact that we were able to reach the Moon with the limited technology of the 1960s makes me believe that greater goals for space exploration are only limited by our support, both political and financial, and our investment in new technologies. So, in effect, I was looking both back and forward through the project. Along with that, many of the test sites—the rocket engine test stands, wind tunnels, and vacuum chambers had been repurposed for other projects and programs. When I photographed these sites, they were often testing or preparing to test newer technology. These sites were actually still working towards the future of space exploration.
How many sites did you see and shoot? Can you tell us about the variety of their former functions and the aesthetics that come with it?
I visited about 12 different locations with numerous facilities at each site. The majority of the work was created at the launch complexes of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. I also photographed launch control rooms, rocket engine test stands, wind tunnels, vacuum chambers, and a variety of other facilities—mostly in the southeastern and western United States. The three main types of facilities I photographed were launch complexes, rocket engine test stands, and wind tunnels.
The launch complexes generally included a blockhouse (the launch control center) and a launch “pad”. The pad contained a ramp to move the rocket to its launch position, a launch stand of some sort to support the rocket, a “gantry”—more appropriately termed a Mobile Service Tower (MST) or Mobile Serve Structure (MSS) —used to cover the rocket during preparation for flight and, as its name implies, move away from the rocket prior to launch, and a launch umbilical tower to connect fuel lines to the rocket right up to the point of liftoff. There were many different configurations and variations of this basic arrangement.
Rocket Engine Test Stands
Rocket engine test stands were used to test rocket engines in static, controlled conditions. Basic components consisted of a large tower structure with a level within which to mount the engine, a large flame or blast deflector, a deluge system to cool the flame deflector, and a control station to oversee and control the test.
Wind tunnels were used to test both aircraft and spacecraft. The size and character of these tunnels varied dramatically based on their purpose and wind speed range.
You define Abandoned in Place as “A unique combination of documentary, abstract, and hybrid images”. What were your artistic involvement and manipulations with the images, and the thought process behind it?
From the beginning of the project, I knew that I wanted to work in a combined stylistic approach—both documentary and abstract. I felt that to tell the entire story, I needed to have images that were recognizable and representational. Because the subject has such a documentary need, I wanted to give viewers a sense of what the overall facilities and general milieu looked and felt like. At the same time, I knew that the subject was also ripe for interpretation and exploration. To extract the deeper meanings and subtexts of the space race and the Cold War, it was imperative that I approach the subject from both abstract and documentary styles. The detail photographs are often abstract in nature due simply to the limited context and of the image. Early on in the project, I took a good bit of grief for this when I would show curators and other artists the work. They often (with good intent) encouraged me to select one style or the other. The problem was, they never agreed on which style to pursue. I think the urge to create work in a specific style is generally a good approach. It helps artists and viewers codify and simplify their understanding of a body of work. However, there are benefits to the broader application of styles to a theme or subject. I believe it allows for deeper context and meanings to be conveyed. There is also a side benefit to this approach. One curator of an early version of the Abandoned in Place exhibit pointed out that museum visitors were often drawn to the more recognizable, documentary images, and they then continued to view the more abstract photographs. She felt it was a clever vehicle to expand a viewer’s appreciation of this and other abstract work.
Regarding manipulation of the images, the only adjustments I make are on the order of color correction, burning and dodging, perspective correction, and “spotting”. In other words, I don’t normally make any adjustments via Photoshop that could not be achieved with traditional darkroom standard printing techniques.
Art projects that trace abandoned sites tend to carry a haunting atmosphere. Your work, however, feels more bright despite the context of the space race of the cold war era and the fear of the A bomb. Do you feel that contrast in the images? If so, was it in any way an artistic calculation or something inherent to the sites themselves?
In the last decade, especially, there has been a real interest and growth in photographers documenting abandoned buildings and sites. There are a number of photographers making amazing images of abandoned sites. Look at Stephen Wilkes’ astonishing images from Ellis Island. His photographs are hauntingly beautiful. I think there are a number of differences in my work and most abandoned site photography. Most of the images I make are of the exterior of facilities. Most of the abandoned building photographs I see are interior views, which greatly change the characteristics of the lighting. And, they are often altered with High Dynamic Range (HDR) software. I’m not a fan of HDR. To me, HDR’s super-saturated colors and over sharpened details are the equivalent of listening to a symphony that is always fortissimo—there are no quieter sections, no crescendos and decrescendos. This approach robs the viewer of the subtler textures and colors. Much of my photography of Cape Canaveral was done right at sunrise when the sun is filtered through the atmosphere warming the color temperature to a rosy-orange hue. I’m a color nerd, both visually and technically. I think the attention to color and light gives these images a brighter, less depressing feel. It is also important to remember, that on the surface, the manned space program was about exploration, not nuclear war. NASA had turned “swords into plowshares”—dooms-day missiles were converted for the “peaceful” exploration of space. Along with this, the aforementioned documentary and abstract approach lends a distinct quality to the body of work as a whole. Most importantly, I feel that the images do portend a future that could have been if the Cold War had heated up. I chose to show this by visually referencing other historic archeological sites: Stonehenge, Mayan temples, Egyptian pyramids, Greek ruins, and others. These archaic sites that we now value as archeologically and historically important were once the centers of culture, commerce and science, much like these recent (relatively speaking) space launch and test sites. My hope is that these abandoned launch and test sites evidence only a brief period where we backed away from extra-orbital space exploration, rather than them joining the archetypes of previous civilizations’ scientific, engineering, and cultural pinnacles.
Abandoned in Place was released as a book back in January, and it was crowd-funded through Kickstarter. Can you tell us about the process of creating the book and what is in it other than the images?
I worked on the Abandoned in Place photography for 25 years and the book for over eight years. I worked informally with one publisher, and then formally with two other publishers, including the University of New Mexico Press where the book was finally published. Luckily, the quality of the publishers got better as things fell through with the first two. The University of New Mexico Press is well respected, especially for their photography books. Unfortunately, university presses have little in the way of direct funding to publish books. They often rely on authors to help them raise funds (known as subvention funding) for publication—particularly with a large format, full color book like Abandoned in Place. Normally, authors look to grants or foundations for funding. In some cases, they support publication with their own funds. I decided that, due to the popularity of the subject matter, I would attempt to raise the funds via a Kickstarter project. Thankfully, the Kickstarter project was very successful. It raised 150% of the goal of $25,000. It is important to note that, though I provided a good deal of the funds for publication, the publishing process still included full vetting of the work through peer review and editing.
The book contains essays by four authors; space journalist Craig Covault, art historian Dr. Betsy Fahlman, space archeologist, Dr. Beth O’Leary, and astronaut and space shuttle commander Pamela Melroy. They present four viewpoints relating to the history of space art, space exploration, and the preservation of space related sites.
What’s next for the project? Will there be any exhibitions?
Forty-three images from the Abandoned in Place portfolio of images will be on exhibit starting February 27, 2016 at the Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum in Denver, Colorado. The exhibition runs through July 2016. I am in the process of arranging other exhibitions.
Your work’s main subject has always been space programs. Is there a particular reason or story for your interest in space as an artist and photographer?
I have done a good bit of photography on the United States space program. Along with my Abandoned in Place project, I spent five years documenting the winding down and decommissioning of the Space Shuttle Program. My interest stems from my experiences as a child following the early period of spaceflight. Also, getting hired at the college near Cape Canaveral rekindled my interest in space exploration.