For All Mankind: Vintage NASA Photographs 1964 – 1983
Reviewed by Alastair Levy
View the full article online here.
In 1969 Allan Kaprow wrote that ‘the LM mooncraft is patently superior to all contemporary sculptural efforts’ and ‘the broadcast verbal exchange between Houston’s Manned Spacecraft Center and the Apollo 11 astronauts was better than contemporary poetry.’ In the context of these comments, he would almost certainly have viewed the extraordinary NASA photographs currently installed at Breese Little as more affecting and more beautiful than any of the image-based works being made by artists of that time.
Presented in a grid across three walls of the first floor gallery, more than 100 prints depict the USA’s explorations in space over roughly two decades from 1964 to 1983. Whilst the politics of national identity is an ever-present backdrop to these images, it is our shared curiousity in existential matters which ultimately dominates here. Astronauts float miles above the earth’s surface tethered by a solitary, umbilical-like cord while they work. Spacecraft ‘rendezvous’ in complete darkeness, their sunlit forms picked out in perfect sharpness by a Hasselblad lens.
To view these images in a book or online would be to gain only a sense of the aura which the prints convey in actuality. The now off-white Kodak paper frames each of these images and lends them an easily fetishised vintage quality. In the top left corners there are red serial numbers, each one slightly off the intended horizontal. This very human imperfection is somehow significant in the context of the precision with which NASA engineers must have to operate. The fact that the captions acknowledge the astronaut-author of the image also adds a human element to this most industrial of projects: James McDivitt, Thomas Stafford, James Lovell, David Scott.
Many of these photographs illustrate space and its familiar visual signifiers so perfectly that it is hard to believe that they are not the product of CGI. Eclipse of the Sun by the Earth taken by Apollo 12 in November 1969 shows a perfect crescent of sunlight with attending flare and starburst against a deep black void. A film production company somewhere has almost certainly used this – or at least something very similar – as a reference for its ident.
Perhaps the most significant image, and the most emotive, is that of Neil Armstrong moments after the first moonwalk. Back inside the Lunar Module he is clearly moved as he begins to take in the enormity of what he, and his crew, have just achieved. Over a period of just 66 years, or roughly one lifetime, the technology of flight had developed from the spruce and muslin constructions of the Wright Brothers to the 3,000 tonne Saturn V rocket which launched Aldrin, Armstrong and Collins into space.
Returning to Kaprow’s idea that art can never trump life, it is worth reiterating that these spectacular images were not created by artists. These prints might be viewed through the prism of vernacular photography, as simply documents by men of their work. It just happens that their jobs, and their place of work, were the most extraordinary of all time.