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The Final Frontier

by Magda Keaney, 1 September 2002

Magda Keaney talks with Montalbetti+Campbell about their photographic portrait of Australian astronaut Andy Thomas.

Andy Thomas, 2002 by Montalbetti+Campbell
Andy Thomas, 2002 by Montalbetti+Campbell

Photographing Adelaide born astronaut Andy Thomas in his bright orange NASA space suit turned out to be a challenging and interesting assignment for photographers Denis Montalbetti and Gay Campbell. Gallery visitors will remember Montalbetti+Campbell's work featured in the National Portrait Gallery exhibition Glossy in 1999.

Commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery, the Canadian born pair who recently left their adopted home of Sydney to live and work in New York, contacted Thomas at NASA headquarters in Houston Texas with the idea of a colour print of him in the distinctive uniform in mind.

Security precautions after the September 11 terrorist attacks meant that many of the more interesting locations at the complex were off limits; Thomas who is currently serving as Deputy Chief of the Astronaut Office did not have unlimited time to give over to the shoot; and the distinctive orange space suits – Advanced Crew Escape Suits (ACES) – are self contained life support systems, fitted with communication equipment, parachute harness and oxygen bottles, valued at around $12 million US each. The suits are not allowed outside of NASA facilities and in fact are cared for by a suit technician who works with astronauts during training at Johnson Space Centre in Houston, re-fits suits prior to flight (at such a great expense the suits are re-fitted after each mission) and even travels to the launching site at Kennedy Space Centre in Florida to assist in pre-flight tests.

Montalbetti and Campbell have worked for many years as editorial photographers and are used to getting a result under the pressure of time and security restrictions (they once shot Bill Gates for the Australian Financial Review Magazine in literally five minutes). Aware of NASA's limitations and the highly specialised and sensitive equipment they would be dealing with in Texas they decided on how to photograph Thomas well before the shoot and had the star and back drop seen in the final portrait made in New York to ensure they could create the image no matter what circumstances they found themselves in on location.

Montalbetti+Campbell draw no distinctions in their artistic collaboration, both taking turns working with the subject in front of the lens, pushing the buttons behind and both rigorously involved in printing and manipulating colours. Or, as in the case of the Andy Thomas commission, working with a professional photo lab to achieve the desired result. The portrait of Thomas was taken using a digital medium format camera. The image was manipulated in PhotoShop and printed from a digital file using standard type C colour processing on high gloss polyester based paper for maximum colour saturation. 'The beauty of digital capture is that we can walk away from the session knowing we've got the shot' notes Gay Campbell. 'Funnily enough we can thank NASA for a lot of the technology we enjoy in photography today!'

Dr Andy Thomas was born in 1951 and is a mechanical engineer with a doctorate from the University of Adelaide. He has worked as a research scientist in the United States with Lockheed Aeronautical Systems Company and at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California on NASA sponsored research into space flight hardware. Thomas joined NASA in 1992 and completed astronaut training then qualifying for assignment as a specialist in Space shuttle flight crews. He flew his first flight in space on Endeavour in May 1996 but is probably best known for his 141 days living and working with Russian Cosmonauts as the seventh and final NASA astronaut at the Mir space station in 1998.

Montalbetti+Campbell's portrait of Andy Thomas is very much a celebratory and public representation. The portrait also contains symbolic elements. The star in the background is a reference to space, the blue backdrop represents earth seen from space in an abstract way. Says Gay Campbell 'We wanted to create an image with immediacy... that would spark the interest, pride and wonder we felt about him... As soon as you look at the image you know this person is an astronaut. The accomplishments of these men and women go far beyond the boundaries of nation'.

Captain Cook, Burke and Wills, Douglas Mawson and Kingsford Smith and Ulm are all represented in our ever growing collection but in Montalbetti+Campbell's photographic portrait of Andy Thomas the National Portrait Gallery has the first of its twenty-first century explorers.