New York

“The Photography Of Space Exploration”

Historian Gail Buckland recently published an interesting book called First Photographs, in which she collected the medium’s first known images of a variety of subjects. It is perhaps by virtue of the same kind of priority that early photographs of the West dominate “American Landscapes.” Everything in “The Photography of Space Exploration” has this fascination, too; but I found myself wondering whether the pictures in it would ever acquire for us the beauty that early photography of the West has. I doubt it. On the one hand, the moon and the planets have always stimulated the imagination. On a fundamental human level, NASA has been, I think, an esthetic project as much as a scientific one. (That’s what Norman Mailer’s book on the space program is about.) On the other hand, though, as a subject for art the moon and planets require not just a medium, but mediation. I find the moon a landscape so barren and invariable that the imagination has to intervene in my perception of it. It is a blank—featureless, colorless, inert—that metaphors have to fill in. It has beauty only as an object of fantasy.

The show at NYU’s Grey Gallery is, in the most literal sense, marvelous. But its appeal lies in the alien monotony of the images, in their remoteness to earthbound sensibility. Even color photography of the outer planets misses the irresistible seductiveness color slides and dye transfers of our world have. Voyager l’s photograph of the moon Io orbiting above the swirling storms on Jupiter looks as fake as a special effect in a ’50s Japanese movie. Mars is so relentlessly rust brown that color photographs show up no more detail than black-and-white. And only through “color enhancement” do images of Saturn reveal coloration at all. In one of the show’s unenhanced photographs of Saturn, the planet and its rings are a uniform yellow so pale as to be nearly imperceptible. Because of the otherworldliness and abstractness of such pictures, the excitement they arouse is more that of an idea than of imagery itself. The unenhanced photograph of Saturn only ceases to be disappointing when you realize that its paleness results from the sun’s being, at that distance, only one percent as bright as on earth. This fact eclipses the image that illustrates it. It forces me to confront the relativism of my own esthetic values.

If human beings continue to despoil nature wherever they can get their hands on it, photographs of virgin planets, like earlier ones of the wilderness, may eventually take on the beauty created by nostalgia for lost innocence. Even admitting that the subjects of these photographs may gain esthetic appeal, however, the likelihood seems dim that the photographs themselves will. The only esthetic character that any of these photographs have is a purely accidental surrealism. Those that the astronauts took on the moon have the unintended kookiness that the industrial photographs collected a few years ago in Larry Sultan’s and Mike Mandel’s book Evidence have. Their bizarre framing and hallucinatory effects result from the fact that astronauts in spacesuits, being unable to hold cameras or look through viewfinders, had to carry their cameras in brackets on their chests. In effect, this makes even the photographs done by men into an extension of the automatic, electronic photography done by Voyager 1, Viking 2, Mariner 10, and the other unmanned space probes.

The universe opened up to us by those images is one not of pictures, but of “pixels”—the computer data through which the pictures are transmitted to earth. An effortlessness inheres in these unmanned photographs the way weightlessness inheres in space itself. Being independent of any direct, human contact with the place photographed, they lack the sense of struggle that photography of the West a hundred years ago contains. We miss in them the whole conflict between struggle and sublimity, the physical and the spiritual, endurance and inspiration. They are without an ambiguity essential to art, which is to say that they lack humanity itself.

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.