The Story Behind NASA’s Iconic and Timeless Artemis II Portraits

NASA Artemis II

The crew of NASA’s Artemis II mission (left to proper): NASA astronauts Christina Hammock Koch, Reid Wiseman (seated), Victor Glover, and Canadian Area Company astronaut Jeremy Hansen. | NASA/Josh Valcarcel

Final week, NASA revealed the 4 astronauts embarking on the Artemis II mission. It’s a momentous mission for NASA and humanity as a result of Artemis II would be the first time since Apollo 17 in 1972 {that a} crewed spacecraft will journey to the Moon and past low Earth orbit.

For PetaPixel, NASA’s information final week stood out for an additional motive — the official crew portraits. Whereas it’s simple to be swept up in mission photographs from house, which will likely be obtainable when the Artemis II crew is in house in November 2024, official crew portraits of main house missions additionally turn into a part of the zeitgeist.

NASA Artemis II
Artemis II Commander Reid Wiseman (NASA) | NASA/Josh Valcarcel

The Artemis II portraits are attention-grabbing due to their dramatic lighting, cinematic really feel, and timeless high quality. They don’t look like typical NASA portraits or business headshots and due to that, PetaPixel wished to search out out the “how” and “why” of the gorgeous Artemis II portraits.

To get these solutions, PetaPixel spoke with the NASA Scientific Photographer behind the unbelievable Artemis II portraits, Josh Valcarcel, to study how his photographic background, what his job at NASA entails, and the story behind his eye-catching Artemis II portraits.

Josh Valcarcel’s Background within the Navy and How the Army Taught Him Images

Valcarcel isn’t any stranger to working as a artistic skilled inside a authorities group; he acquired his begin as a photographer after finishing Naval boot camp.

As soon as he accomplished primary coaching, Valcarcel was transferred right into a four-month crash course on primary nonetheless pictures. He realized pictures and photographic expertise from a technical, structured perspective. He says it was an ideal surroundings to study pictures as a result of “it’s almost not possible to be fired from the army,” so he was free to study from errors behind the digital camera.

“Trying again, one of many issues that helped me probably the most was beginning a artistic profession within the army,” Valcarcel tells PetaPixel.

“I went to varsity once I acquired out, and I noticed a whole lot of younger people battle as a result of they had been attempting to study a artistic artwork — [photography] is an utilized ability, however it is an artwork.”

In distinction, Valcarcel says, “What the army did for me is inform me it is a artistic job, however educate me how they wished me to do it. That is how the craft is carried out. These are the tenets and guidelines, the prevailing knowledge about how good imagery is captured, and the way to work properly as a working photographer.”

Whereas in school, Valcarcel noticed how difficult it was for pictures college students with out his background to navigate the fragile balancing act of construction versus creativity and technical expertise versus inventive expertise.

“It may be arduous to grasp the way to carry your creativity right into a structured surroundings, particularly when there are stakeholders within the imagery you’re creating. The army gave me that basis to work from. It taught me the way to be a shooter earlier than I wanted to fret about who I used to be as a shooter. I found that as I went.”

There are similarities between Valcarcel’s work at NASA and his expertise within the Navy.

“There’s a whole lot of overlap. After I learn the job description, it felt acquainted to me due to what I’d executed within the Navy. I do know what it’s prefer to shoot within the authorities,” Valcarcel tells PetaPixel.

“I used to be skilled within the Navy about the way to {photograph} award ceremonies, do ‘grip and grin’ portraits, and canopy occasions. I understand how to do all of that within the photojournalistic, documentary type the federal government expects to see. I feel NASA has confirmed to be comparable in that regard.”

NASA’s Structured Setting Offers Valcarcel The Better of Each Worlds and Artistic Freedom

At NASA, Valcarcel appreciates the eye to element and emphasis on security he skilled within the army, however he additionally advantages from being in knowledgeable civilian surroundings. He has a structured work surroundings that enables for extra creativity.

“I couldn’t be happier,” says Valcarcel.

One other similarity between his days within the Navy and his work at NASA is that Valcarcel feels a way of service and responsibility. His ardour for pictures was married to his feeling of duty and repair from the earliest days of his coaching.

At NASA, he feels that it’s his responsibility to carry out his job a sure manner. Whereas each photographer cares about their work, Valcarcel admittedly comes at it from a extra duty-bound path than the standard working photographer.

“I get to relive and increase that very same feeling at NASA,” Valcarcel remarks.

Past “grip and grin” occasion portraits and public relations pictures, his work at NASA additionally contains many pictures which are just for inner use, similar to photographs of engineering and tools checks. These pictures, typically up shut and private, assist NASA engineers and contractors see how their work is progressing and what wants to alter as they iterate on tools.

What Does a Scientific Photographer at NASA Do?

Valcarcel describes himself as like a “campus photographer” at NASA. No matter is occurring that day that requires imagery, that’s one thing he’d shoot. Typically it’s press conferences and the aforementioned “grip and grin” portraits for the press, different occasions it’s photographing engineering checks for inner use.

“I serve the scientists and engineers right here as a scientific photographer. Many occasions, that overlaps with needing to get public relations imagery too.”

Typically he wants to modify gears shortly from capturing extraordinarily detailed technical pictures for inner engineering use to photographing pictures for public affairs that may curiosity the overall viewer exterior of NASA.

Talking of NASA “contractors,” Valcarcel is one in every of them. Whereas all his work is for NASA, he and the opposite photographers he works with are employed by Analytical Mechanics Associates (AMA) underneath the COMIT contract for the house company.

Teamwork is Paramount at NASA

When talking to PetaPixel, Valcarcel emphasised the significance of his crew. Whereas he captured the unbelievable Artemis II portraits that grabbed viewers’ consideration, he says that they had been solely attainable due to the assist he receives from his supervisor, Mark Sowa, lead photographer Robert Markowitz, and fellow photographers James Blair, Invoice Stafford, and Riley McClenaghan.

Artemis II
Victor Glover. Picture credit score: Robert Markowitz / NASA

“I took that [crew portrait] and performed an element in pitching that idea, however it was an enormous crew effort. I needed to have the assist of my supervisor and crew. I can’t let you know what number of hours we spent as a bunch working by way of it. Robert, our lead photographer, was a giant instigator in beginning the dialog, even final yr, about what to do for Artemis II.”

With out the time, house, and assist to develop concepts, Valcarcel argues that the outcome would’ve been a lot totally different. He and the crew got here up with a brand new imaginative and prescient for Artemis crew portraits that units the stage for Artemis II and future missions. The portrait idea unifies the previous, current, and future in methods Valcarcel expanded upon later within the interview.

Valcarcel’s crew not solely helps him from a technical, sensible perspective but additionally offers alternatives to flex his artistic muscle mass and push inventive boundaries. Whereas there are particular expectations inside NASA as to the required imagery, as soon as Valcarcel “will get the shot,” he typically has time to experiment.

NASA’s in-house studio surroundings is a frequent artistic playground, full with backdrops, lights, and loads of house.

Valcarcel’s Artemis II Crew Portrait Encapsulates his Background, Profession, and the Artistic Freedom he has at NASA

“NASA let me method the Artemis II crew portrait prefer it was an editorial shoot — with the identical degree of creativity and freedom. For me, that was a primary for one thing with that form of visibility and a ready viewers,” Valcarcel says. “I’m very grateful for that.”

“Artemis II is so traditionally vital to this system and the world at massive. NASA trusted me and collaborated with me to provide a crew portrait that we felt would aesthetically be reflective of a brand new program. We’re transferring into the longer term, and we wished to symbolize that aesthetically.”

NASA Artemis II

“The truth that you’re talking to me signifies that [the Artemis II crew portraits] are fascinating and crowd pleasing,” Valcarcel says. “To me, that’s tremendous rewarding, as a result of that’s precisely what we wished to carry for the Artemis program.”

“Working backward from there, I’ve a whole lot of alternatives to be artistic, and a part of that’s as a result of I’ve a whole lot of assist from my supervisor, Mark.”

Valcarcel explains that Mark Sowa tells his crew that they need to all the time be capable to play on the highest degree and try to match the artistic photographic work produced by any business photographers within the trade.

“There’s no speak of ‘it’s adequate for presidency work,’” Valcarcel jokes.

NASA Artemis II
Artemis II Pilot Victor Glover (NASA)| NASA/Josh Valcarcel

NASA’s Studio Area is The place the Magic Occurs

Valcarcel has two hours within the studio for a lot of assignments. Throughout that point, he should seize the anticipated pictures. Nevertheless, with any additional time, he’s in a position to attempt new concepts.

As he’s turn into more adept with lighting setups and establishing an environment friendly workflow, his “free” time has frequently elevated.

“It doesn’t take me two hours to shoot all of the official photographs now, so I’ve carved out additional time on the finish of official shoots. I often idea an thought, attempt one thing in black and white, or do one thing increased distinction.”

NASA Artemis II

A part of Valcarcel’s artistic course of entails working with identified constraints. He is aware of how a lot time he has and understands the tools at his disposal. By recognizing limitations, he can focus extra power on methods to be artistic given the scenario reasonably than continually come up in opposition to roadblocks he might’ve prevented altogether.

“I construct what I feel I can do inside that constraint. For instance, what can I do in quarter-hour to provide myself the most effective odds of getting a distinct form of shot that’s nonetheless usable?” Valcarcel says.

He units up all his lights forward of time, even those for experimental photographs. He makes use of both totally different lights altogether or units up totally different powers and setups utilizing numerous wi-fi channels.

The crew stands in for one another to experiment earlier than the official shoots begin, so Valcarcel has lights able to go when the time comes. It’s simply one other manner wherein the crew of photographers works collectively to assist one another succeed.

Moments and Emotional Aesthetics

Even when the lights are arrange and the photographs are meticulously deliberate, there’s nonetheless a little bit of luck concerned.

“All I’ve to do is change the radios to a distinct channel, drop a distinct colour down, perhaps change one gentle, and I’m able to roll. All I’m attempting to do is get a selected look, feeling, or expression. For those who don’t get a second in a portrait, it’s only a image.”

NASA Artemis II
Artemis II Mission Specialist Jeremy Hansen (Canadian Area Company) | NASA/Josh Valcarcel

NASA Offers Photographers Thrilling Gear

Given NASA’s storied historical past with Nikon and Hasselblad, it’s doubtless unsurprising to listen to that Valcarcel used Nikon Z9 and Hasselblad X1D 50C II cameras for the Artemis II portraits.

The Z9 is the primary mirrorless digital camera Valcarcel has used, and he’s a giant fan of its digital viewfinder.

“I like mirrorless now. I like the digital viewfinder and the eye-detect autofocus. The handbook focus with the peaking and zooming in permits me to work so much higher as properly. Not needing to focus and recompose is superb.”

The Hasselblad X1D 50C II additionally proved to be adept for the first crew portrait. It was the primary time Valcarcel had used the digital camera, as NASA obtained it simply earlier than Artemis II photograph day.

NASA Artemis II

Regarding lighting, the crew makes use of Speedotron lights within the studio. Alongside the lights, photographers like Valcarcel makes use of grids, octobanks, softboxes, reflectors, barn doorways, dishes, and snoots.

Artemis II Portraits Channel the Spirit of Apollo

When requested about his artistic imaginative and prescient for the portraits, Valcarcel refers to a few historic NASA crew portraits, together with the long-lasting Apollo 11 crew portrait of Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin.

Apollo 11
This portrait of the well-known Apollo 11 crew (from left to proper: Armstrong, Collins, and Aldrin) was an necessary reference for Valcarcel. Picture credit score: NASA

“I’ve wished to do one thing like this since I acquired to NASA nearly six years in the past. I all the time wished to do a distinct form of crew portrait, and, amazingly, I acquired the chance to do it with Artemis II.”

The Apollo 11 portrait is an unbelievable picture that knowledgeable a lot of Valcarcel’s idea for Artemis II. “It’s acquired so much going for it. It has a contemporary really feel for being shot within the Nineteen Sixties. It’s acquired the moon behind it. We all know the place they’re going and may see them of their fits. However one factor I don’t love about it’s that they’re all trying in several instructions and have totally different expressions. There’s an absence of emotional unity. However in case you take a look at Michael Collins, he appears able to go. I really feel like there’s one thing in his expression. I’m going to reference that look once more.”

The opposite two portraits Valcarcel despatched over included an area shuttle crew portrait from the Nineties and an ISS portrait from 2017.

NASA Shuttle Portrait
“5 astronauts and two payload specialists take a break in coaching for the Neurolab mission to pause for a crew portrait. The Spacelab mission was performed aboard the Area Shuttle Columbia on STS-90 which launched on April 17, 1998. Astronauts Richard A. Searfoss, commander (proper entrance); and Scott D. Altman, pilot (left entrance). Different crew members (again row, left to proper) are James A. (Jim) Pawelczyk, Ph.D., payload specialist; and astronauts Richard M. Linnehan, Kathryn P. Rent, and Dafydd R. (Dave) Williams, all mission specialists; together with payload specialist Jay C. Buckey, Jr., MD. Linnehan and Williams, alumnus of the 1995 class of astronaut candidates (ASCAN), represents the Canadian Area Company (CSA).” Picture credit score: NASA/Mark Sowa

From a design perspective, Valcarcel thinks a number of the graphics, particularly within the ISS portrait, are distracting and take away from the crew.

“There are a whole lot of parts that compete to your consideration. If we’re going to launch a brand new program, like Artemis II, I wish to return to specializing in the crew and making the portraits about them.”

NASA ISS portrait
“The six-member Expedition 53 crew poses for an official crew portrait on the Johnson Area Middle in Houston, Texas. Seated within the entrance (from left) are Flight Engineer Alexander Misurkin of Roscosmos and Commander Randy Bresnik of NASA. Standing within the again (from left) are NASA astronauts Joe Acaba and Mark Vande Hei, Sergey Ryazanskiy of Roscosmos and Paolo Nespoli of the European Area Company.” Picture credit score: NASA / Robert Markowitz

“For those who take a look at the Artemis II portrait, I slimmed it down. I wished one thing that match into the bigger narrative of crew portraits over the a long time, together with those I referenced, however modernized for the subsequent technology of going again to the moon.”

There’s a theme of paring issues down all through the Artemis II portraits. Even the Apollo 11 portraits, which have a remarkably trendy really feel because of their easy aesthetic, embrace a comparatively busy background.

NASA Artemis II
Artemis II Mission Specialist Christina Hammock Koch (NASA) | NASA/Josh Valcarcel

Within the Artemis II crew portrait, every astronaut has a unified expression. They’ve a little bit of the “Michael Collins expression” of willpower and seriousness however with a little bit of a softer edge.

“The general aesthetic and their expressions lend gravitas to this system. We’re going again to the moon — to remain. The portrait wanted to have that affect,” Valcarcel says. He wished to make a brand new crew portrait that’s true to its roots however coming into the longer term. The main focus wanted to be on the crew.

PetaPixel described the portraits as “timeless” to Valcarcel. “I couldn’t be happier that you just’d use that phrase. I wished to make the portrait stylized with out making it prone to being dated sooner or later. I wished this to appear and feel like a portray.”

No Element Too Small

The Artemis II crew portraits had been many months within the making, and each side of the ultimate photographs was mentioned and deliberate far forward.

An instance of that is the backdrop for the Artemis II portraits. The darkish, slate-blue background was fastidiously chosen, and Valcarcel needed to advocate for the colour selection. Various choices included a background with the moon, lunar floor, or one thing white or grey.

“It’s a cool, distinct shade of blue,” PetaPixel tells Valcarcel.

“That makes me so completely happy,” Valcarcel laughs. “There was some inner debate about whether or not the backdrop ought to have colour. After I was pitching the portraits, I didn’t need them to have the high-key backdrop from the shuttle-era portraits, however I didn’t need it to be a moon within the background both.”

NASA Artemis II
The distinctive blue that Valcarcel wished provides off a lunar and house vibe with out hitting the viewer over the pinnacle with a photograph of the Moon. Valcarcel needed to advocate for this practice, hand-painted backdrop.

“I actually pushed for the background to have a splash of colour. I believed that grayscale could be lifeless and lack character. I felt {that a} contact of colour would play properly with the orange spacesuits. I labored actually arduous to get what I believed was a muted blue that might not instantly really feel like blue however seems like blue.”

Valcarcel believes {that a} contact of muted blue conveys the remoted and chilly surroundings of the moon higher than a grayscale backdrop might.

“Individuals trusted me with that, and I labored arduous to get a superb instance to ship to the artist at hand paint the background.”

The artist did a “phenomenal job,” provides Valcarcel.

The background is an integral a part of the portrait, however it’s not one thing that jumps out on the viewer, which returns to Valcarcel’s major goal of constructing the crew portrait about the crew.

“The background may be very a lot part of the image, however it’s making you take a look at the crew.”

Valcarcel’s Lighting Philosophy

Valcarcel tries to realize as a lot as attainable with few lights.

“That’s not as a result of I don’t assume that having extra gentle is unhealthy, however I’ve a restricted capability of what I can preserve observe of. I have to construct units one gentle at a time, and for me, it’s simpler to maintain observe when there are fewer lights. Much less is extra.”

He used simply three lights for the crew portrait, which Valcarcel shot with the Hasselblad X1D II 50C and an 80mm lens. The principle gentle is a big gridded octabank, accentuated with a small softbox for fill gentle. The third gentle is a small gridded reflector dish with barn doorways pointed on the backdrop to provide the portrait a splash of colour and separate the crew.

NASA Artemis II
Artemis II Mission Specialist Christina Hammock Koch (NASA)| NASA/Josh Valcarcel

“I need the lights as near them as attainable with out it being within the body. I wished to have drama and really feel however not an excessive amount of distinction. I spent a whole lot of time dialing on this fill gentle.”

He utilized a mix of Rembrandt and loop lighting. If there’s an excessive amount of distinction for a bunch portrait, the topics can look obscured as a result of their faces are smaller within the body.

The person portraits embrace a fourth gentle, though the overall method is comparable, albeit extra dramatic. The extra gentle is a snoot hair gentle to introduce additional depth.

NASA Artemis II
Artemis II Mission Specialist Jeremy Hansen (Canadian Area Company) | NASA/Josh Valcarcel

“I’ve executed extra Rembrandt-style, deeper distinction type portraits earlier than, like with the additional time I’ve throughout official shoots. Individuals appear to react positively to these, so for Artemis II, the script is form of flipped.”

Valcarcel’s “artistic alternates” he’s executed earlier than, such because the one under, knowledgeable the type of the first Artemis II portraits. It highlights the significance of the artistic freedom he’s had throughout his time with NASA and that the experimental work he’s executed earlier than fashioned the muse of the official portraits of one in every of NASA’s most necessary missions.


Given Valcarcel’s consideration to element, it’s no shock that the place of every astronaut within the crew portrait was fastidiously thought of and deliberate. The composition is concurrently easy and complicated.

For instance, NASA astronaut Christina Hammock Koch holding her helmet is a vital a part of the picture. On the one hand, it’s only a helmet, however on the opposite, it offers important context with out being distracting.

The angle of the opposite three astronauts, Wiseman, Glover, and Hansen, enable the viewer to see their nationwide flag patches, offering necessary details about every astronaut with no need to incorporate extraneous graphics just like the ISS portrait Valcarcel referenced, which incorporates additional flags overlaid on the picture.

NASA Artemis II
Artemis II Pilot Victor Glover (NASA) | NASA/Josh Valcarcel

What’s fascinating is that whereas the composition itself was established lengthy upfront, the situation of every astronaut was modified in the course of the shoot. A lot of the pictures had the astronauts swapped, however “on the finish, we swapped them round, and everybody was in the precise spot. Everybody had the precise expression.”

“Christina has the proper expression. She appears regal. Reid appears like an previous ship captain, you recognize? Everyone seems to be vibing very well on that one body. It’s surprisingly well-balanced, too, I acquired actually fortunate. It’s a must to hope for the second, even while you’re ready. I acquired a second, and that was all pushed by them. I attempted to get the ‘Michael Collins’ expression’ of trying critical however ‘pondering completely happy ideas,’ and I acquired fortunate; they did an ideal job.”

Connections and Historical past Make Valcarcel’s Job Simpler

The astronauts aren’t fashions. It’s all the time difficult to {photograph} individuals who aren’t essentially used to being in entrance of the digital camera, particularly when attempting to articulate the physique language and facial features the photographer needs.

Valcarcel has fashioned a working relationship with individuals at NASA over a very long time. He’s been with these astronauts for years.

“It was actually necessary to know them, particularly for this Artemis II portrait. Quite a lot of of them articulated that they trusted me, largely based mostly on imagery I’ve created previously. I really feel like I developed a specific amount of rapport with them and different astronauts over time. They’re placing good religion in me to ship on that. It is a actually huge second for this system and an enormous second for them as astronauts.”

The Legacy of the Artemis II Portraits

“I’m extremely honored that the astronauts would collaborate with me and belief me with this. That’s big. I’m so completely happy and grateful to have been of service and performed an element on this.”

The truth that Valcarcel and PetaPixel chatted in regards to the Apollo 11 portrait greater than 50 years after it was captured highlights the lasting legacy of iconic missions similar to Artemis II.

“You made the photographs that form of encapsulate these astronauts’ life work,” PetaPixel tells Valcarcel.

NASA Artemis II
Valcarcel’s particular person Artemis II crew portraits function dramatic lighting and a timeless aesthetic. | NASA/Josh Valcarcel

“It’s fairly the factor,” Valcarcel says. “For that crew shot particularly, largely, it launched these astronauts to the world. Our entire crew put a whole lot of effort and time into making that occur. I’m actually glad that it appeared to have all labored out. All of us have concepts, and we hope they’re good, however a whole lot of it goes on good religion and belief in your self.”

“I’ve all the time given myself permission to fail confidently. I’ve allowed myself to study from my errors. However that is an occasion when you possibly can’t fail. I needed to belief myself, all my expertise — I needed to belief that my sensibilities aren’t nonsensical.”

Valcarcel has all the time tried to have logic to his artistic choices, however generally it’s only a intestine feeling, “like having that spike of blue within the background.”

Artemis II is a Fruits of Valcarcel’s Love for NASA and Area

Rising up in Florida, Valcarcel spent a whole lot of time round house shuttle launches.

“I completely love house. I like NASA, I like the astronauts, and I beloved all of it earlier than I ever thought I’d get to work right here. This was an absolute dream come true — excessive superb to get to do that.”

“I wish to produce the most effective work I can, however that’s nearly secondary to desirous to be the most effective steward of my alternative. I’m able of service to the astronauts, program, NASA, and the world at massive.”

Valcarcel emphasizes the affect that older NASA crew portraits had on him and the inspiration they gave him as he grew up and entered his profession, even lengthy earlier than he thought he’d ever work for the house company.

NASA Artemis II
Artemis II Commander Reid Wiseman (NASA) | NASA/Josh Valcarcel

“I need that to be a reciprocal pressure. I need that inspiration to cycle round. It meant so much to me that I might perhaps do this for different individuals.

The Artemis II mission is an enormous milestone for NASA.

“The historic scale of that and the best way it was offered from NASA was, in a bizarre manner, the crew portrait is a picture that just about everybody noticed. That’s a once-in-a-lifetime factor to create as a photographer, a picture that travels that far. It’s superb to have the ability to replicate on it.”

“I’m glad I’m reflecting on it now reasonably than earlier than as a result of which may’ve made me much more nervous!” Valcarcel jokes.

Josh Valcarcel and his crew labored collectively for a very long time to develop the idea for the Artemis II portraits. It was an in depth effort made attainable by a supportive surroundings stuffed with proficient individuals who belief one another.

The arduous work paid off in a giant manner: The Artemis II crew portraits channel the previous and look towards the longer term in a visually interesting manner that’s basic and trendy. Valcarcel’s work lays a unbelievable basis for future Artemis missions.

NASA Artemis II

Extra of Josh Valcarcel’s work is on the market on his web site and Instagram. There you’ll discover a number of the “artistic alternates” he talked about that ultimately knowledgeable the type of the Artemis II portraits.

Picture credit: NASA and Josh Valcarcel

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