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Art People: Michael Light gives us the moon

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San Francisco landscape photographer Michael Light spent nine months negotiating with NASA for access to the master duplicates of some 32,000 negatives of photos taken during the Apollo moon flights. "It is safe to say that the astronauts were not artists, nor would they want to be seen as such," he writes in his masterfully produced Full Moon, a book of 129 photos he culled and scanned from NASA's archive. But Light, who is an artist, has used their images to craft a lyrically eerie epic of a voyage to the moon and back.

"Everybody on the planet wants to use this or that [Apollo] image for advertising," he says. "It is precisely that sort of stuff that has made those few images that we know so well into cliches all the more. It's an evil kind of image corruption, and I don't want to have anything to do with it. I labored for five years to take these out of cliches."

A painter's son, Light found himself immersed in terrestrial landscapes beginning in his childhood in Long Island's rural East Hampton and at a private school in the mountains of New Hampshire. "We didn't have much else to do but go outside," he recalls. He was a photographer for the school yearbook, and his mother gave him a view camera when he graduated in 1981. As an American studies major at Amherst, Light penned a thesis on Herman Melville and American imperialism, although "I almost left Amherst my freshman year to go to photo school."

"I was particularly interested in the American west, and in 1986 I moved out to it," says Light. He began working for the Sierra Club, but ironically he was soon relocated back east, to Washington, D.C. "I found myself wearing a coat and tie and looking at a computer terminal and being a very upstanding lobbyist." He returned to the west, and after getting a master's in photography from the San Francisco Art Institute he published Ranch, photos of a cattle ranch in the Santa Barbara Valley. "Much like Full Moon, it was a textless visual narrative," he says. "It was kind of a very small revisionist western."

Light found that frontier metaphors like animal branding and landowning resonated with NASA space ventures and Apollo's lunar rituals in particular. "Every single mission they went through the flag ceremony. They shot those pictures. Very consciously, though, in Full Moon those pictures are not there. The only flags are there because they're unavoidable and they happen to be on the shoulder patches of the astronauts. A picture of the flag is just as narcissistic as Buzz Aldrin's boot. At least the boot print is just human and not national."

Light compares the Apollo flights, whose astronauts often shot through Hasselblad cameras mounted on their chests, to the "great photographic explorations of the 1870s, which were government-funded mapping survey expeditions where geologists would get together with the finest photographers of the day and head off into the landscape, after the Indians had been sufficiently quelled, to find out what America had."

While Light argues that "Apollo blows away the last shreds of the fantasy of innocent exploration," imagery, not ideology, is his primary focus in Full Moon. The Apollo archive is in the public domain, and anyone can order an inexpensive print made from a duplicate negative several generations away from the original. Light, using negatives only one generation away, made digital scans ranging from 140 to 900 megabytes from each negative, resulting in some of the most distinct images of space ever produced. "If you look at it like an archaeological dig, we went in below the film grain, so we got all the informa-tion that the film original had plus a little bit more," he says. He cautions, "It's important to remain invisible. To go back to good old Ansel Adams--who I have some major issues with as a contemporary landscape photo-grapher--he had a great musical metaphor. He would call the negative his score and his print his performance. I remained true to the score in every case. But each print is very much my performance.

"You didn't have to do much to them, you just had to print them properly for once," he says. "You start with getting the blackest space--as black as you can get." Light's printers in Milan mixed a new deep-black ink dubbed luna nero for his 200,000-copy run. "Most books are built from white and they go to black. This book comes out of black; it builds on black. Space books are very troubling because black is very glossy. Essentially what you see is a bunch of mirrors. Rather than sucking you into the void and giving you a real experiential taste of velvet, you're thrown back in a kind of reflective mirror and it's awful, so we struggled very hard to get those blacks as black as possible.

"I'm not a NASA PR person but I think actually they were pleased that somebody out there pushed past the PR stuff," he says.

Prints of Light's work are available at Catherine Edelman Gallery, 300 W. Superior (312-266-2350). --Bill Stamets

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