Celestial Fracture, 23rd February 2021, by Leonard Di Maggio, Annie Maunder Prize winner

Alan Sparrow on a prize-winning photograph of space

This mosaic of images of Saturn is the 2021 winner of the Annie Maunder Prize for image innovation in the Insight Investments Astronomy Photographer of the Year awards.

The Royal Museums at Greenwich host these fantastic awards for photographs that are the closest we can get to exploring space from the comfort of our own armchair. I was recently asked to judge this year’s awards and the winners for 2022 will be announced later this year.

This winning image in the Annie Maunder category is Celestial Fracture and it was created by Leonardo Di Maggio, who works for Nikon. I recently met with Di Maggio and asked about the work - is it photography or is it art?

 ''I consider Celestial Fracture to be a photographic artwork'' he said. ''It was created using pre-existing photography but the image choices, edits and the overall order and structure of the piece are a form of conscious artistic choice. I used open-source data from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory website, and in producing this piece I brought the images from the technical scientific domain and into the visual arts realm”. Celestial Fracture also raises the question about when an image is truly finished, he told me. Traditionally in digital photography it would be when the final photograph is produced in camera or exported after editing, but the possibility to use pre-existing photographs to create a new piece of art entirely suggests that art is never finished and opens an infinite amount of possibilities in the creation of art.

''I produced my photographic artwork Celestial Fracture over lock down. After seeing the images of Saturn that the Cassini missions brought back I was immediately inspired to create a piece of artwork. I do lots of abstract photography and it was incredible to see the parallels that the close-up images of Saturn had to the fine art images I had been taking of architecture and landscapes.

The patterns formed by Saturn, its rings and its moons are truly magnificent. The photographs have echoes of architecture, nature, art and design and are just as artistically inspirational as they are crucial for scientific study.''

Di Maggio is a self-taught photographer and astrophotographer, having started his journey in the Coast Mountains of British Columbia in Canada. He had been interested in space and astronomy from an early age, and this developed into astrophotography as soon as he got his first camera in 2016.

Since living in the UK the most challenging aspect of astrophotography, he says, has been the weather. ''The moon needs to be at a certain phase and the sky needs to be completely clear of cloud. Additionally, the photographic targets need to be free of obstructions like branches of trees, buildings and areas of heavy light pollution” he says. ''For deep space astrophotography I base myself in the garden because the projects take many hours to complete and once all the equipment is set up and taking photos I can go inside and get warm.

For landscape astrophotography Di Maggio makes very detailed plans of locations using Google Earth and various mobile phone apps to make sure the landscape aligns with what he is shooting in the night sky and is photographic enough to justify staying out all night rto photograph it. For his deep space and landscape astrophotography he uses a Sky Watcher Star Adventurer Pro mount that attaches to the top of the tripod and rotates at the opposite direction to the earth's rotation and at the same speed in order to allow long exposures of the night sky without the stars causing trails in the image. “For most of my images I use a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens attached to either a crop sensor DSLR or a full frame mirrorless camera" he says.

The Annie Maunder prize has only existed for three years and is controversial and interesting in equal measures. The prize goes to the person who produces the best image from publicly available data. Many are unaware that such fantastic images are freely available on astronomy sites such as Hubble and can be used in the competition.

The award recognises Annie Maunder who was born Annie Russell in 1868 in Strabane, Northern Ireland. She won a scholarship to Girton College, Cambridge, where she excelled in mathematics, but it would be another 60 years before degrees were given to women.

Maunder left university in 1889 and the following year joined the Royal Observatory, Greenwich.

At that time Greenwich was recruiting “lady computers” - at a salary £4 a month women cheaper than men – which nurtured a lifelong interest in astronomy and telescopes, and married a colleague at the Observatory followed. In 1973 a crater on the moon was named after Walter and Annie Maunder.


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