Stellar vision: Snapping a sequence of eclipse images is a passion for ‘astro photographer’
The darkness that sweeps over the earth is alluring to Marc Maccini, to the extent that he has traveled thousands of miles for the chance to witness a total eclipse of the sun. As an “astro photographer” who is oftentimes perched over his telescope that sits on his outdoor porch, overlooking Fisherman’s Beach in Swampscott, he was more than a bit disappointed to miss out on being in Beijing last Friday to document the latest occurrence of the rare event.
“A total eclipse of the sun is an amazing phenomenon,” he says of the uncommon happening that can be seen somewhere in the world every two years or so, when the moon passes in front of the sun and you’re in the moon’s shadow.
“The path of totality is very narrow,” he says, as he demonstrates with his finger circling a globe. “It’s about 100-140 miles in width, and it’s a circular shadow that travels about 2,000 miles an hour across the earth’s surface.”
Being in the right place at the right time, under a cloudless sky, is no small feat.
“Any place on earth will see a total eclipse of the sun, roughly, once every 400 years on average,” he explains.
The last total eclipse in the Swampscott area was in 1958, he offers, “Although it was at sunrise, so not too many people saw it.”
He says the next event in our area will be in 2077.
“God this sounds geeky,” he says, before explaining that there was another eclipse in 1970, but off the coast of Nantucket.
While he didn’t have the funding to travel the 13,000 miles roundtrip to Beijing (one week prior to the start of the Olympics, no less), he has joined many a sky-watcher in the past, traveling all over the world to snap the transitional series of the sun and moon.
His work of collages has sold at Corners in Swampscott, and will be on display in the store window of Kennedy Studios, 402 Humphrey St. in Swampscott, beginning Aug. 10 and running through Aug. 19. Owner of Kennedy Studios Chris Menzies says she likes to feature local artists, and Maccini has already proven to be a successful sale.
Menzies featured Maccini’s work once before, and she knew it drew a lot of interest, not just from the significant sales, but by the number of fingerprints left on the storefront window.
“I got a lot of people coming in,” says Menzies. “This is an exhibit different than what my gallery usually has.”
The start of something stellar
Growing up in Medford, Maccini says he was always fascinated with what he saw through his telescope. Not sharing his enthusiasm was his sister, who at times the 8-year-old Maccini would awaken at 3 a.m. to say, “You’ve got to see this!”
“Don’t wake me up anymore,” his sister finally demanded. “I don’t care what you see.”
Maccini gets more interest from the fishermen in Swampscott, a town to which he was drawn in 1982, and in 1987, a place where he and his partner Gene settled, buying a house overlooking Fisherman’s Beach. Their home is filled with whimsical décor, from the formal German cuckoo clock to the retro “Felix the Cat” clock — and more clocks that swing in tandem throughout their home. The porch where his telescope is located also holds planters with fig trees and potted flowers.
The backyard begins with a well-cared-for garden that boasts fruit trees, herbs, vegetables and a goldfish pond, and ends with a view of the boats in the ocean’s harbor. The clocks and the gardening are Gene’s hobbies, but he supports Maccini’s passion and travels with him to witness the astronomical events.
Maccini offers Gene’s comment, “I’m not really interested in the eclipse so much, although it’s interesting, but I just like that we get to go someplace interesting.”
For the more local events, Maccini is on his own for the most part, either from his porch, or like last fall, when he headed to the pier at Fisherman’s Beach.
“If there’s an astronomy event, I’m there,” he says.
With his gear in hand at 3 a.m., he stood on the deserted pier to watch the total eclipse of the moon.
“It was awesome,” he says of his experience.
It had never occurred to him that fishermen would arrive at dawn, during the moment of totality. The two dozen fishermen gathered around him to take a look through his binoculars. Like the fishermen, many of Maccini’s friends turn to him for answers to what’s happening skyward.
“A lot of people call me and say, ‘Marc, what’s in the sky right now?’” he says.
When he travels to see eclipses, Maccini meets many like himself, filled with a passion for the sky’s happenings. And when it’s cloudy during the three hours of an eclipse, it’s pretty disappointing. That was the case in 1991, when the couple went to the big island in Hawaii — a trip Maccini planned for 15 years — to see an eclipse.
“It was cloudy,” he says of the overcast morning during the eclipse. “It was sad.”
The two were in Hawaii for a week, and every morning it was clear, except for that one depressing morning, though the gloom was fleeting.
“Two hours after that, I was in the ocean diving with sea turtles. How bad could it be?” he says.
During his flight from a stopover in Los Angeles, he met a crowd headed to the same location for the same reason.
“There were ‘eclipse people’ on all the flights,” he said. “I stood in the back and talked for six hours. I don’t think I sat in my seat during the entire flight.”
Maccini’s interest in astronomy goes hand in hand with his interest in photography, both acquired at an early age.
“I was always interested in photography,” says Maccini. “Even when I was a kid, I was interested in taking pictures with those funny cameras we all had,” he says, referring to Polaroid and Kodak instant models. “I organized all my parent’s pictures, all my family’s pictures. I was always documenting.”
Astro photography became an interest in 1972, when his family took a trip to Prince Edward Island, where he photographed his first solar eclipse.
“Astronomy is really my first passion, not photography,” says Maccini, who recalls going to PEI and realizing he just had to take pictures to document the eclipse. “I was just a dumb kid, but I learned rudimentary kinds of photography, and I took pictures of that eclipse.”
Backlash of the moon overlapping the sun
On his trips to watch astronomical happenings, Maccini says he has witnessed many reactions to the eclipses, recalling an episode in a tiny village in northern France.
“We met lots of folks, and this one woman, during the moment of totality, began to sob,” he recounts. “If you looked up in the distance, you’d see this shadow sweeping onto to you at 2,000 miles an hour, and what should be the sun is a tiny sliver of crescent in the sky. Suddenly you’re in the circular shadow of what used to be the sun but is now this black hole, and around it is a fiery corona, a mother-of-pearl iridescence. People physically react to this.”
When in Venezuela, he witnessed girls aged 10-12 years who began to sing in Portuguese to sooth themselves during an eclipse.
In 1979, he was at an eclipse event at Washington State, on the Columbia River Gorge. It was cloudy, but at the totality of the eclipse, he says the earth’s temperature began to drop, the wind picked up and his body got a sensation that something was “off.”
“All around, animals were screaming, baying, mooing, doing their thing,” he explains. “The collective cacophony of that sound made my friend Jen cry. She felt afraid.”
The start of a stellar career
The first time Maccini photographed an eclipse as a professional was Feb. 26, 1998, on the Caribbean island of Curacao.
He says, “That was the first time I decided, ‘OK, I’ve got the photography skills, I’ve got the passion for astronomy and I’m traveling. I’m going to figure this out.’”
So he began to read about it, getting books on the subject.
A stack of astronomy books sit on his coffee table in his living room, such as “Fifty-Year Canon of Solar Eclipses: 1986-2035,” by Fred Espenaka, which lists where and when the future solar eclipses will take place.
“I know, I’m such a nerd,” he says, but not before explaining that a total eclipse of the sun takes place over the course of three hours. “It’s a long period, from the moment the moon starts to move across the sun’s surface. But the moment of totality, when the sun is totally eclipsed by the moon, it’s very brief. It can be anywhere from seconds to five or six minutes. You have to know exactly what you’re doing.”
He practiced, becoming accustomed to taking pictures without looking in the camera, mainly because he wanted to witness the events firsthand. In addition to eclipses, comets are also a fascination.
Maccini is also a deep sea diver, having first gone in 1986 while in Bonaire to witness Haley’s Comet. There, he learned that he loved more than the astronomical phenomenon; he also loved the ocean.
Although the cost of eclipse cruises and land tours are expensive (going to Beijing would have cost him $4,000), if it’s reasonable enough, Maccini will plan to go. In fact, he is planning his next trip to witness an annular (Greek for “ring”) eclipse in January 2009, in Indonesia, where many will gather for this unusual phenomenon.
“It’s like the earth is having an event,” he says. “You really get a sense of something bigger and larger than yourself. For a lot of people it’s the first time they sense that they’re on the planet. Something’s visually happening around you that you can’t ignore. There are people who become junkies. I guess I could be one of them.”
If he could have been, he says he would have been in China. Instead, he headed to Cape Cod for a less costly vacation.
In addition to his passion in astro photography and deep-sea diving, the multi-faceted Maccini — whose “day job” is as a social worker in Wakefield for the Massachusetts Department of Mental Retardation — is also a singer/songwriter, who to date has recorded five CDs.
“I’ve always been a musician,” he says. “I’ve known how to play and write ever since I was a kid.”
The stars have influenced his music as well, with songs like “Star Gazer” on his CD “Fire Dance,” and “Far Side of the Moon” on his CD “Moonlight Echoes.”
In the style of Michael Bublé, he plays his jazz music at Borders Bookstore in Peabody every other Tuesday from 6-9 p.m. (Watch a video of him playing the piano and singing, “You Move Me” at www.wickedlocal.com/swampscott/arts).
With the busy life he leads, finding the time to do it all is the burning question.
His answer: “I never stop working, and I don’t watch TV.”