Each month DarkSky International features a DarkSky Advocate from the worldwide network of volunteers who are working to protect the night. This month we’re highlighting the work of DarkSky Delegate Mike Shaw (Minnesota).
The night sky is universal. It connects people all over the world to the same thing — the cosmos — but not everyone has a view of a truly dark sky. Through his photos of the night sky, DarkSky Delegate Mike Shaw is working to change that, because he knows that people must see and feel connected to something to be compelled to protect it.
A resident artist at the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum, Shaw is photographing the night sky at each of the nine levels of the Bortle Scale across the state. By photographing the same section of sky from different vantage points and degrees of darkness across Minnesota, Shaw will help viewers see the differences in the night sky between a remote dark site and a bright inner-city location. His images will be projected in the planetarium at the Bell Museum, and he also plans to create virtual reality images for people to download from anywhere in the world.
A physics professor and research scientist before becoming a full-time photographer, Shaw has always had a fascination with space and with the natural sciences. After earning a PhD and literally becoming a rocket scientist, Shaw realized that his true love was sharing knowledge and fostering appreciation for the natural world — and he considers the cosmos as an extension of the environment. During photography workshops that he leads, one of his favorite things to do is to ask participants to lie in a circle with their heads together, looking straight up at a dark sky. From this vantage point, all you see is the sky. There is no horizon, which, Shaw says, “is no different than the view of an astronaut.”
One of the things about the night sky that is underappreciated by the general public, Shaw says, is that it is three dimensional. The stars are varying distances away from us, which is something you can only really appreciate when looking at a truly dark sky. He hopes that his photographs of dark skies can help people understand this depth and create a connection to the cosmos. As a DarkSky Delegate, Shaw advocates for dark sky awareness and conservation because, as he says, “it’s not hard to imagine a future where this view is obscured everywhere.”
Shaw considers himself more of a nightscape photographer than a traditional astrophotographer, due to the fact that his images generally include something terrestrial. He believes that images shot from this perspective, with a foreground, help provide context and allow people to develop a deeper connection to the night sky. When viewers see a landmark in a picture, it helps them to be able to imagine themselves standing there.
Along with being a nightscape photographer, author, speaker, and workshop leader, Shaw also runs the Aurora Summit, a conference all about the Aurora Borealis. At the end of this month, he’ll be serving as a judge for DarkSky’s “Capture the Dark” photography contest, too. In addition to the formal criteria outlined for the contest, Shaw says that he’ll be looking for shots that demonstrate the artist’s connection with the sky. He says that pictures do not have to be technically sophisticated to show that photographers are in love with what they are seeing and want to share it.
That connection with the natural world is what it’s all about, Shaw says. And he encourages everyone — wherever they are, whether under a bright city sky or a dark sky in remote wilderness — to take a moment each night to look up and feel that connection to the cosmos.