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Documents of a Journey through the Looking Glass

Full Moon, an exhibition of 128 lunar photographs curated by Michael Light will be on view through September 23, 2000 at the American Museum of Natural History. Mr. Light selected these images from 32,000 still photographs from the Apollo Missions at the Lyndon B. Johnson Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston with the intent of finding narrative continuity and aesthetic value. Cold war icons of flag planting have been omitted along with other frequently published photographs. Light’s images express a sense of the scale and ambition of the Apollo Missions during various phases of their approach and descent to the moon’s surface.

The earth rises over the lunar highlands in a composite of two images, Hasselblad 70mm transparency by Alfred Worden, Apollo 15, July 26 – August 1971.

The first photographs in the series depict the rocket flight toward the moon and include images of glowing, incandescent billows of flame generated by pure oxygen and kerosene fuel at the launch pad. In certain photographs the fire appears like a neat plume of light propelling the rocket upward while in others it seems uncontrollable, like a conflagration destined to consume the rocket. In still other photographs the exhaust creates an image of beauty, not unlike the petals of an exotic flower, framed by space. The departure from earth’s atmosphere is described with photographs that document a marriage of warm saffron light with blue oxygen.

As the earth recedes into the distance, exhibition photographs document conditions in the modules from Apollo 7 through 17. One photograph depicts Apollo 13 Commander James Lovell sleeping at lunar module temperatures in the low 40s after an oxygen tank explosion disabled his mission 200,000 miles from earth. Lovell’s scantly illuminated figure, clutching his arms for warmth, conveys a sense of human vulnerability in the vastness space.

As their destination approached, photographs increasingly depict the moon with its myriad “dead seas,” misnamed by early astronomers. Scientists believe that during the birth of our solar system, more than three billion years ago, the moon was bombarded by a shower of meteorites that carved out its mountain ranges, craters, and basins. The topography of the moon, as seen in these photographs, changes greatly according to its degree of illumination by the sun. High contrast light produces a foreboding effect of sharp plateaus and deep chasms. A gentler or direct light creates the impression of a dusty, barren desert with craters and dunes.

At last the astronaut-photographers descend to the surface of the moon in awkward space suits that protect them from intense heat and cold and small meteorites that pelt the surface of the planet. The moon has roughly one quarter the diameter of the earth, and sequential photographs demonstrate an immediate sense of the curvature of the moonwalker’s horizon. The absence of color is very striking. Gold-Plated ultra violet shields on a space module seem like hand-tinted additions to black and white prints. Lunar dust is black, but on the moon, due to its intense proximity to the sun, it appears either gray of “mouse brown.” In film balanced for light and color on earth, sunlight produces warm colors, but in Apollo Mission photographs it has a silver luminosity that pours over the planet with striated rays that project from the darkness of space.

To conclude the sequence, Light offers photographs of the return voyage. These culminate in a photograph of the Pacific Ocean that was taken out the window of a module after splashdown. For all the strange beauty of the moon, it is refreshing to view a sea full of water and color on the horizon. Some of the moonscapes are visually rich and pleasing like good landscape photography, and through them Mr. Light helps us to vicariously experience a fascinating journey.

© Daniel Rothbart, 2000.

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