New York

NASA Photographs

Light Gallery

A gallery show of photographs made in space and on the moon will inevitably incite all the usual arguments about whether a work of art can be made by a non-artist or a machine. The slipperiest thing about reviewing NASA’s pictures, though, is not the fact that they were made for technical and documentary purposes, but that what they show is so exotic and extraordinary, and without a counterpart in most of the earth’s art. Gene Thornton has commented on these photographs disapprovingly, implying that there was something devious about them since, although they purported to be documentary, they reminded him of some of Walker Evans’ and Harry Callahan’s work. There is a curious kind of truth in the latter perception, but it has nothing to do with the astronauts’ knowing about fine photography, or even with their having picked up a vernacular style that may derive from, say, Evans.

Instead, one suspects that any good artist NASA could have afforded to send to the moon would have made very similar pictures. I imagine that the astronauts must have sat through a lecture or two on the rudiments of clear photography: how to concentrate a picture on the most important thing happening, how to exclude all the superfluous things that will get in, how to make sure the light is dramatic, etc. Next, I am sure that they were given a list of things not to forget to photograph, things that would satisfy both scientific and popular curiosity, as well as everyone’s sense of romance. And what the astronauts came back with is the most common-sense version of a moon trip possible. What Thornton wants beyond this is the intricate, layered human poetry that good art provides but that proceeds not just from a highly developed sensibility, but from the earth’s having been pictured so many times that even its most savage parts are now human.

If NASA’s moon pictures lack great subtlety and complexity it is not because the astronauts were inadequate artists, but because the moon is so foreign. It is also because the enterprise that these pictures describe is itself so magnificent that the emotion they evoke can only be simple and celebrative. The gold-shrouded, spidery Lunar Lander falling away toward the moon in one series of photographs communicates plain, uninflected joy in a degree that little other art in our aged, cultured world does. The pure glamour of machines that can sustain men on that barren planet is a surpassing poetry of its own. And whatever human story up there was filled with the layered meanings, the irony that we demand of art—the story, say, of the interactions of the spacemen, their fear, adventure, and what must have been the disappointment of the one who could not land on the moon—was not the subject of these pictures to begin with. They are anything but pretentious (the single, mildly pretentious thing about the show was the implied connection it made between NASA’s photographs and various new art that proffers a maplike, pseudoscientific look). If anything about them is hard to take, I suspect it is their pure adventure and delight, which we are unused to seeing recounted in a gallery of modern art.

Leo Rubinfien