Books: Photographers in Sapce | Essay | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Essay

Books: Photographers in Sapce

Unlike the automatically made images we see today, these early man-made space photos show a fascination with the earth, an almost wistful devotion to home.


Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe


If spaceflight were a sport, it would most resemble baseball. In both the field consists of nearly empty space, the few objects in it of surpassing importance to the game. Both involve a fascination with spheres, arcs, circles. (Baseball appears linear: the stark lines of the diamond, the ball thrown from one point to another. But look at the fly ball's parabola, the grounder's wild dribbling ballistics, the actual path the runners make around the bases.) Even the experience of the players is similar: long stretches of inactivity punctuated by spurts of intense engagement and moments of high drama. And in both the object is the same: to get home.

Consider this view of home. December 1968. For the first time a spacecraft, Apollo 8, carries human beings into lunar orbit. First the spacecraft slides behind the moon. On one side a profusion of stars, on the other the utter blackness of the lunar surface at night. Then around to the sunlit side. Apollo 8's three astronauts look down on a landscape they will later describe as desolate, monotonous, and forbidding. They are the first human beings to see the moon's surface up close, and for all of them it is something of a disappointment. A gray green cratered plain stretches to a stark horizon where, suddenly, the earth rises. It is a half earth, radiantly blue and white against the blackness, and the astronauts are awestruck by its rare, delicate, indescribable beauty.

As a species we have watched sunrises and moonrises uncounted millions of times, but these three individuals were privileged to witness something we had never seen before: earthrise. And all of us can share in that privilege because one of those present, William Anders, took a photograph.

This picture of the earth floating bravely and exquisitely above the lunar surface is one of the most frequently reproduced images of our time. So are views of the whole earth seen from space. The first such photographs were also taken by William Anders during the same flight. We have known for centuries, and theorized for centuries before, that the earth was a sphere suspended in space, but Anders and his companions were the first to get far enough out to look back and see the earth whole.

Images from space have become a commonplace. It is impossible to describe them without resorting to worn-out superlatives that even a Roget could not repair: "ravishing," "dazzling," "breathtaking." So telescopes here on earth have produced enravishing views of galaxies, nebulas, objects out on the rim of human perception. Satellites have charted the surface of our world in bedazzling detail. Interplanetary probes have sent back photographs whose beauty is, well, inenarrable.

All of this beauty has been packaged countless times in attractive large-format volumes. Two books by Timothy Ferris, Galaxies and Space Shots, are excellent examples of the genre, and there are also publications by NASA itself. So why another large-format volume of space photographs?

The View From Space, edited by Ron Schick and Julia Van Haaften, is a unique celebration of what the human hand and eye can do. All the images are from the years 1962 to 1972, an era covering the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. Every one was taken by a human photographer holding a still camera; not a single shot is automated.

This book marks the first time that the individual creators of each photograph are identified. Presented as works of art, as personal creations, the shots are grouped by photographer and thus provide insight into the talents, interests, and style of each astronaut. Most are accompanied by comments from the astronauts as well as other NASA staff, creating an informal oral history.

"The best-known astronaut photographs have become icons, achieving a life of their own as symbols that have overshadowed the circumstances of their creation," write Schick and Van Haaften. In the book's most significant omission they give the barest attention to the way images from space have served as symbols and have given added impetus to movements for peace, human rights, and environmental quality. On the other hand, they narrate a lively history of the photographs that does much to uncover the circumstances of their creation.

Remarkably, in those early days NASA displayed no interest at all in astronaut photography. John Glenn, an experienced amateur photographer, wanted to carry a camera on his Mercury flight. The official reaction was skeptical. The problem was a manual one: how to take pictures and fly the spacecraft at the same time. Glenn experimented with a number of cameras, finally selecting one purchased on impulse at a Cocoa Beach drugstore. It was modified so that he could hold it, aim it, snap the photo, and advance the film all with one hand. In February 1962 John Glenn became not only the first American to orbit the earth but also the first person to carry a still camera into space. In three orbits of the earth he took two rolls of color film; the resulting shots are primitive by professional standards, but a precedent had been set.

Officially, the possibilities of hand-held camera work in space still went unrecognized. Gordon Cooper recalls a memo circulating after Glenn's flight stating that astronauts could carry a camera into space if they wished. Cooper wished. In May 1963, during the final flight of the Mercury program, he used a stripped and modified 70-millimeter Hasselblad to create hundreds of vivid images: atolls in the Pacific, clouds massing over the Arabian desert, and over and over again the Himalayas. Those images won the battle for astronaut photography. NASA brought in an expert to analyze the pictures frame by frame and made photographic assignments a part of all subsequent missions.

NASA also began to appreciate the public impact such photographs could have and sought to create what are now called photo opportunities. In March 1965 Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov became the first person to "walk" in space, but no photographs were taken. Three months later, during the flight of Gemini 4, the first spacewalk by an American astronaut, Ed White, completely upstaged the Soviet achievement because the other astronaut present, Jim McDivitt, made an extensive photographic record. Appearing in newspapers and magazines everywhere, these shots of an astronaut's ballet in space, with the curve of the earth as a backdrop, electrified the world. Never before, not even in the live coverage of lift-offs, had the excitement of spaceflight been conveyed so effectively, nor would it be again until the actual landing on the moon.

Schick and Van Haaften do not always provide enough content. In one study in blues and whites, there's a faint blur of land beneath clouds, some of which turn out to be from fires burning near Haiphong after an American bombing raid in July 1966. You cannot tell this from the photograph. Unless you look hard, the plumes of smoke are indistinguishable from the clouds. What did these astronauts, mostly drawn from the military, think of this shot? We are not told.

Schick and Van Haaften have chosen the images here with great care. The range of subjects is impressive: countless studies of the earth; portraits of astronauts at work and play; weird shots of the lunar surface that appear to be black and white but on closer inspection turn out to be color; close-ups of boosters, capsules, and command modules.

But it is over the shots of the earth that the eye lingers. The view from space is not made for close-ups; wide expanses, big-canvas subjects, predominate: the Himalayas, the Sahara, the Nile Delta. Still, the images are striking in their detail. Look, for instance, at Gordon Cooper's photograph of the forested slopes of Szechwan, the richest of rich dark greens; the silver thread of a river flows across the land, and little clouds dot it like popcorn. Or at the various shots of the Caribbean: every conceivable shade of blue--enough to confound Cezanne--from the slate gray of hurricane weather to the limpid turquoise of the shallows. Jim McDivitt notes that "flying over the Caribbean was always the highlight of every day." One cannot help noticing that the farther away you get from earth, the more the whole world takes on the hues of the Caribbean.

In the score of years since these gorgeous views were taken, say Schick and Van Haaften, "the atmosphere covering much of the globe has degraded visibly." Visible from orbit, like the fires near Haiphong? Dostoyevski or one of his characters remarks somewhere that the world will be saved by beauty, but perhaps what would move us most is a view of ugliness, a view of beauty lost. Perhaps it would help us to see that the earth from space looks less and less like the Caribbean and more and more like the Sahara. If such shots exist, we should be forced to look at them, and NASA should be forced to show them to us. Write now for space-shuttle views of Prince William Sound.

Of course, it is not accidental that a study of astronaut-created photography focuses on the years 1962 to 1972. Maybe such photography should be relegated to the first phase, the "golden age" of American space exploration. Nearly everything we have ever sent into space has carried photographic equipment; the images taken by a human photographer comprise only a fraction of what we have. Since the early years we have fashioned better and better devices that can produce incomparable images without needing the presence of a human hand, a human eye.

In any case, those shots by William Anders could not be taken today. Our space program has other priorities, and we currently lack the capability of sending humans to the moon, to see another earthrise, and to capture the whole world in a snapshot.

The recent and more daring phases of our exploration lack the fascination with the earth, the almost wistful devotion to our home planet that marked the photographs of the early years. These old images have been supplanted by the utterly unearthly beauties of Jupiter, Saturn, Callisto, Io. Alongside these new images, the earlier ones seem like keepsakes of a quaint old neighborhood, the home place we must in some sense leave behind as we drive farther and farther into space. And who knows what still awaits us out there: beauties so inhuman that even a Robinson Jeffers would fall silent.

To think again of spaceflight being like baseball, maybe the object of the game is changing. Maybe now the object is to hit the long ball, to aim at the deepest part of the fence and hit it right out of the park. Still, much of what we have learned from probes sent to other planets has given us a deeper understanding of the earth. They don't call them homers for nothing.

The View From Space: American Astronaut Photography 1962-1972 by Ron Schick and Julia Van Haaften, Smithsonian Books, $30.

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Reader Revolutionary $35/month →  
  Rabble Rouser $25/month →  
  Reader Radical $15/month →  
  Reader Rebel  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  → 

Add a comment