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These images of the star-smeared sky aren't what you think (pictures)

Artist Vanessa Marsh makes beautiful photos of skies filled with stars and nebulae, but she does it without a camera -- or a sky.

Michael Franco
Freelancer Michael Franco writes about the serious and silly sides of science and technology for CNET and other pixel and paper pubs. He's kept his fingers on the keyboard while owning a B&B in Amish country, managing an eco-resort in the Caribbean, sweating in Singapore, and rehydrating (with beer, of course) in Prague. E-mail Michael.
Michael Franco
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1 of 8 Vanessa Marsh

Starlight?

"There is no official name that encompasses the entire process, I've pretty much just made it up as I've gone along." That's Oakland, California-based artist Vanessa Marsh speaking about striking images she makes that look like long-exposure photos of the night sky.

While the images -- like this one, called simply "Dust Cloud" -- are indeed made with photographic paper, they don't involve a camera. All of the images in this gallery come from Marsh's series called "Falling," which she is still developing.

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2 of 8 Vanessa Marsh

Star bright

Vanessa Marsh calls her artistic creations "chromogenic photograms," but that, she says, is actually a simplification of what she does.

"A photogram is made by placing an object on top of photo paper in the darkroom and exposing the paper to light," she told CNET's Crave blog. "The resulting image is a negative impression of the object that was placed on the paper."

However, Marsh's real magic shines in the chromogenic part of her process, the part that involves adding color to photographic paper.

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3 of 8 Vanessa Marsh

Misty mountain starshine

"Chromogenic refers to the type of color development process and paper," Vanessa Marsh said. "In my case, paintings and paper masks are the objects. I make the paintings in the opposite or negative colors of my final print."

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4 of 8 Vanessa Marsh

Ribbons of light

Artist Vanessa Marsh explains that she paints images using transparent inks and acrylics on clear mylar. "So the light shines through a transparent green and makes magenta," she said. "In effect, the paintings are to-scale negatives. The stars on the other hand are opaque paint, so they end up white because no light is getting through."

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5 of 8 Vanessa Marsh

Starlight highway

"For example, if I want a purple and magenta Milky Way, I would create a painting in yellow and green," Vanessa Marsh said.

Here, the mountains are made by placing paper cutouts on the photographic before before exposure. "Paper masks and multiple exposures as individual masks are removed create the layered landscapes," says Marsh.

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6 of 8 Vanessa Marsh

Alien galaxy?

Because of her unique technique, Vanessa Marsh's images look at once familiar and completely alien. We're used to looking up and seeing own Milky Way Galaxy, but in this creation, the galaxy in the sky is completely foreign. Maybe this is what it would look like from the surface of Kepler-452b, the most Earth-like planet NASA has found yet.

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7 of 8 Vanessa Marsh

Crazy big

Vanessa Marsh has been interested in space and the cosmos since she was a child.

"When I was pretty young, I remember a camp counselor explaining to the group what starlight was and how long it took the light to reach Earth," she told CNET's Crave blog. "We were spending the night in sleeping bags, out in a field, and I remember that night not being able to fall asleep contemplating this new information and staring into space. I think it's also about a combination of feeling significant and insignificant at the same time. We are so so so small. It's crazy how big it is out there. And here we are, isolated, and this is really all we have."

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8 of 8 Vanessa Marsh

Next stop

If you want to catch Vanessa Marsh's work in person, here's what she had to say about where it's appearing in the San Francisco Bay Area:

"In late September I'll be showing new work at Rayko Photo Center along with other female photographers working with one-of-a-kind prints."

In November, work from her series "Everywhere All at Once" will be installed for permanent display at San Francisco International Airport in Terminal 3 East. In December, she'll be part of a group show at Dolby Chadwick Gallery in downtown San Francisco. And the exhibit "Night Begins the Day" at San Francisco's Contemporary Jewish Museum is up until September 20.

Of course, you can also check out her portfolio on her website here.

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