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News . Feature Stories . Alum Talks About Work as NASA Photographer


September 01, 2012

Alum Talks About Work as NASA Photographer

Michelle Marie Murphy '04 balances work as NASA photographer, studio artist, teacher, and curator

In 1961, 13 accomplished American women pilots were training to become the nation’s first women astronauts when their mission was scrapped. In 2003 a Mount Holyoke College professor published a book about “the Mercury 13” and with that, CIA photography major Michelle Murphy found the focus of her BFA thesis.

An artist, feminist, and space lover, Murphy researched the history of women astronauts and titled her BFA exhibition Mission: Lady Apollo. At about the same time, she set out on a mission of her own: to get a job as a photographer at Cleveland’s NASA Glenn Research Center. She started working there even before graduation.

Inspired in part by the tenacity of those first women astronaut trainees, Murphy has since maintained a demanding schedule as a creative professional. “I am totally committed to being a studio artist, a commercial photographer, an art educator, and a curator,” she said in a rare moment of down time in her Cleveland studio.

Her career preparation began early, when her single mother drove her from Lakewood, Ohio, to art classes at the Cleveland Museum of Art starting at age five. In high school she enrolled in photography courses through CIA’s Continuing Education program, and as an undergraduate, she said, she “had a lot of really incredible professors and would seek them out.”


Murphy arrived at NASA well qualified for the job. With a minor in TIME-Digital Arts, she had valuable video editing skills and she had served key internships before graduation. Photographing the researchers, facilities, and projects at NASA Glenn feeds her need for challenge and her fascination with materials. “The job involves a lot of problem solving. I sometimes have to boil a story down to a single image that the researchers can use to promote their scientific research.“

The work — which may be photograph- ing for science and engineering journals
or to promote collaborations with private industry — often involves illustrating a project “from cradle to archive.” Murphy likes belonging to that proud NASA lineage. “We have photos dating back to 1942. I’m part of a line of photographers for NASA.”

She is also one of a number of CIA graduates contributing to NASA’s success, including the late designer James Modarelli ’38 who designed the agency’s familiar logo, Emery Adanich ’80, who works as a multimedia project supervisor, and Terence Condrich ’00, an aerospace illustrator.


When she finishes her day job, Murphy’s day is just beginning. Often, she heads back to her alma mater to teach photography courses offered by CIA’s office of Continuing Education and Community Outreach. These include night classes for adults and teens (like the ones she took), and for the last four summers, the residetial Pre-College program for high school students who want a taste of life at a college of art and design.

Continuing Education Director Lisa Kramer Reichel says she keeps asking Murphy to teach because Murphy is such a reliable and engaging instructor whose students consistently give her excellent reviews. “Her passion for photography is contagious and inspiring,” Reichel said.

Last year, Murphy added to her resume adjunct faculty at CIA, when she taught in the undergraduate program. Film, Video + Photographic Arts Department Chair Barry Underwood was glad to have her. “She’s smart, she’s really conscientious regarding her students and what they need, and she’s well informed about both techniques and contemporary context.” Murphy said teaching has inspired her to learn about a variety of art forms and art movements so she can speak knowledgeably to her students. “The thing that I enjoy most about teaching is figuring out what type of artist or photographer each student is and creating specific assignments for their school of thought,” she said. “I’m not interested in creating multiple versions of people who make my work; I’m interested in matching the student’s interest with the best quality and most visual image they can produce to communicate the concepts they’re interested in.” Best of all, she said, “I get to talk shop and I have an audience that cares.”


When she is not working at NASA or teaching for CIA, Murphy focuses on her own studio practice, creating and exhibiting fine art photography and video art. She has shown work in Switzerland, San Francisco, Chicago and the Midwest and sells work online In 2011 she received honorable mention in the New York-based Jen Bekman Gallery’s international photo competition. She will be included in an alumni exhibition at CIA this winter. 

Her “Perceptual Beauty” series of largescale metallic photographs and short videos includes extreme close-ups of eye makeup, reminiscent of the Op Art paintings of Julian Stanczak ’54; images of cosmetic materials exploding, melting, or smeared on a surface; and images that question beauty and gender identity, as in the photo of the man’s hairy hands with manicured, acrylic-painted nails. Murphy lists three influences in the series: modern art and abstract painting; concepts of identity informed by modern-day or third wave feminism; and studies of the physical properties of beauty “tools.”

Her interest in material properties represents the most obvious overlap between her artwork and her NASA photography. She recalls advice from Professor Richard Fiorelli ’74. “He taught us to continue to look at the material and to let the material creatively speak to us.”

Murphy hopes her artwork will inspire viewers to think about societal standards of beauty, and the history of “the gaze.” She wants to be part of the cultural landscape. “My work isn’t just for me; it is to create a new visual residue that I hope one day, albeit for 15 minutes, 15 seconds, or a lifetime after mine, will somehow enter into a larger audience to create a moment of reflection about what is real and what is made real by way of relationships, consumption, and the media.”


Murphy’s newest venture is as co-curator, with Swiss artist Baptiste Lefebvre (aka Cetusss), of the online magazine The magazine, which debuted last February, showcases creative interpretations of one topic per issue in photography, painting, drawing, installation, prose and other art forms. The August 2012 issue deals with the theme of levitation; December’s issue will be on oil. Artists from around the world submit work to MAKE8ELIEVE for consideration and Murphy and Cetusss call themselves curators of these collections, rather than editors of a publication. “We believe we can organize an intelligent, challenging, and well-designed magazine with contemporary and unusual topics. It is content driven and shares the work of the well-known international artists and emerging artists alike,” they wrote on their homepage.

So how does Murphy juggle her multiple creative roles? For starters, she feels well- prepared by her CIA education. “CIA students can problem-solve creatively better than some other students and they figure out how to be studio artists and have a studio practice. CIA is heavy on critiques, so you learn to understand the cultural context of the work that you’re making. Instead of only focusing on process and craft, we also focus on cultural context.”

And if CIA — and perhaps the 1960s female astronaut trainees — provided some of the inspiration, Murphy provides the perspiration that fuels her productivity. “I constantly work and I don’t have much of a social life, but I do have people in my life who believe in me,” she said with a smile. “I‘m very goal oriented; I make goal maps for myself. The truth is, the more time you work at becoming an artist, the more people are going to naturally start recognizing you as an artist.”

Michelle Murphy is one of 18 artists included in A Tale in Two Cities, which will be on view in CIA’s Reinberger Galleries from Nov. 2 through Dec. 15. (

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