WIRED, Feature, 'Encountering the Astronomical Sublime'

Encountering the Astronomical Sublime: Vintage NASA Photographs 1961 – 1980

Article by Zachary Slobig

26.09.14 

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Old-School NASA Photos Transport You to Space Exploration’s Glory Days

Space photography is largely taken for granted these days. Stunning images from the Hubble space telescope, amazing martian panoramas (and charming selfies) taken by Curiosity, and snapshots from the International Space Station are just photos in our daily feeds, too often swiped aside with little thought or appreciation.

But there was a time not so long ago when images from space had the power to truly amaze, a time when a photo of, say, Ed White floating in the void boggled the mind and inspired the imagination. Photos from the earliest days of manned space exploration were stunning statements and, yes, powerful propaganda, yet many of them possessed the intimacy and casualness of vacation pictures.

Encountering the Astronomical Sublime: Vintage NASA Photographs 1961 – 1980, running through Oct. 25 at London’s Breese Little gallery reminds us of this with a selection of vintage NASA photos. They document a key moment in history and reveal NASA’s remarkable skill in harnessing the power of photography to, as gallery co-director Henry Little says, “enchant the taxpayers.” These photos have the immediacy of snapshots from a roadtrip.

“A lot of the stuff on the moon are really quite close to holiday snaps,” he says. “In one of the captions, the astronaut talks about wanting to get the flag, the man, and the moon all in one shot. It’s like you’re going on holiday, and there’s a nice sunset and you want to get your mates in the foreground and the beach in the background.”

It’s all very practical in that way. These men were documenting one of history’s greatest achievements, but they also were, in their way, tourists enjoying the most amazing vacation anyone’s ever taken. That gives the photos a charm that was lost as space exploration became almost routine and lost some of its power to amaze. “The mystery of the moon sort of drained away when we got there and realized that really it was just a rock,” Little says. “People assumed it might be a whole new era, but not that much changed. It was the world of tomorrow that never really arrived.”

Still, it’s hard not to look at photos taken by the Curiosityrover and not feel the same wonder our parents and grandparents felt seeing photos from the moon. And we are once again being tantalized by dreams of space travel from the likes of Virgin Galactic and Space X. The show dovetails nicely with this resurgence of a collective interest in exploring worlds beyond our own.

“We’re presenting these images as the beginning of a process that is now entering a new phase,” says Little. Space is, once again, “unabashedly cool.”

Henry Little