Since childhood, the night sky has captivated Suren Manvelyan (@surevenmanvelyan). At age sixteen, he began taking photos of stars with a film camera. Later, he went on to receive Armenia’s Presidents Award for his research in the field of quantum technologies. Today, he teaches astronomy, physics and mathematics in Yerevan, and continues to take photos of the sky that inspired him years ago. Widely known for his close-up images of human and animal eyes, Manvelyan brings a sense of a wonder to all of his photography projects—from macroscopic portraits to faraway galaxies glistening above historic ruins.
Speaking from Armenia’s capital city, Manvelyan shares what inspires his otherworldy images of the Armenian night as well as recommendations for travelers who want to experience the magic of its ancient landscape.
What draws you to landscape and astrophotography?
The stars, the Milky Way, the galaxies – it was my dream for a long time to take photos of these. It became easier to take photos of stars when the technology allowed you to have a very high ISO on cameras. The higher ISO, the better your photography.
You live and teach in Yerevan, yet your nighttime landscapes feel worlds away. How do you choose your locations?
It’s easy to find a good location in a mountainous country. Just one hour drive from Yerevan, there is a very high mountain called Aragat. The highest peak is about 4000 meters (over 13,000 feet), and there are very good roads to nearly the top of it. When I arrive there, the sky is much clearer, and I can take photos with long exposure. It is not so close to the city, which helps me to get more stars in my photos.
How would you describe Armenia’s landscape in a few words?
You can find mountains, you can find cliffs, you can find lakes – a very rich variety of landscapes.
Where was this image taken?
This is to the north of Saghmosavank monastery. There was a broken water pipeline, and the water was jetting vertically creating this amazing ice hill.
Monasteries make frequent appearances in your night photography. Are these common sights in the Armenian landscape?
Yes, there may be some 30-40 monasteries and ruins within an hour drive from Yerevan.
Why do you choose to photograph them at night?
I can illuminate the church as I want to show its whole beauty.
Describe how you composed this shot of Tatev monastery.
It is a very popular view of the Tatev monastery... There are many photographs of Tatev monastery from that point of view, but not many of nighttime. We had a very small amount of moon. If there is a true moon, you can’t get too many stars in your shot. If the moon is smaller, then you can get lots of stars at the same time.
What is the source of the turquoise light?
It is the longest ropeway in the world. It has fantastic views and flies over one of the deepest gorges in Armenia.
Crosstones feature prominently in your photography of monasteries. What purpose do they serve?
Most of them are tombstones. However sometimes they are considered doors to the spiritual world.
You caption one image “Meteor and Dragon Stone at Stone Lake.” What is a dragon stone?
Dragon stones are very ancient monuments made from the curved long stone a few meters in length.
What do first-time visitors often overlook when they come to Armenia?
Churches not far from the capital. There are old monasteries – Geghard, for example, which is completely carved inside of a cliff – and Garni temple, the only preserved Greek temple in Armenia.
What is the best way for travelers to reach monasteries?
Most of them have good roads, though some are difficult to reach. Sometimes you can only reach them by walking.
Where would you recommend travelers go to experience the best of the Armenian landscape?
I would like them to travel to Lake Sevan and to the top of Mount Aragat if they have the ability to climb it—it’s not difficult actually. You can see a large part of Armenia from the top. I would also have them go to the Bargushat mountains or to the north to Lake Arpi in the Shirak Province.
What is your favorite landscape to photograph and why?
The most beautiful place to photograph is Mount Ararat. Ararat is now in Turkey, but the most beautiful view of this mountain is from Armenia. If you have clear atmosphere, sunrise has the best conditions for taking a photo.
Head to his Instagram for more visual journals.