I finally purchased it and it didn’t disappoint.
It’s a really interesting project since it’s all about sequencing and editing rather than going out and shooting. For the five-year period depicted,* Michael Light went through ~32,000 images and edited them down to a concise set of ~125.** The result is a really tight edit which only contains a few of the iconic photos*** and presents a view of the moon exhibitions which is exciting from both a photography point of view and a science/technology point of view.
*Apollo 7 through 17, 1968 through 1972.
**Admittedly not Winogrand territory here but still an impressive feat. In the five years I’ve had my digital camera, I haven’t generated that many images.
***Aldrin’s footprint and the black and white version of Earthrise.
As photography, the images—in particular the ones taken on the surface of the moon—present a new way to look both at landscapes and at the moon. As earthlings, we’re used to certain visual queues which are absent in these photos. There is no atmospheric haze. The sky is a different color. The curvature of the planet is different. No color, clouds, foliage, etc. and as a result, what we see is almost an abstractedly pure landscape—it’s just about the landmasses and how they interact which each other as forms.
The moon-surface photos are also beautiful and dramatic and exciting.* The pure wonder and joy of being on the surface of the moon comes through here.** Are these scientific photos? Absolutely. But they’re also taken by humans and informed by their interest in and reaction to their environment. This is travel photography at its most pure, “you will never believe what I saw,” essence. Many of the photos just show things which I’ve never seen before. It’s impossible to not feel the excitement and desire to share with anyone who will look.
*That the astronauts were limited due to temperature restrictions to moonwalks only during dawn and dusk really helps the photographs from a technical point of view.
**As much as I’ve wanted The Onion’s moon landing poster for years, I understand and appreciate it even more now.
The photos of the journey to, and back from, the moon are a bit more familiar. They’re completely integral to the set but we’ve seen more recent versions of many of them. It’s nice to see the Earth fade into the distance and think about how amazing it must have been in 1968 to see the Earth that way for the first time. It’s also interesting to complete the sequence and see the Earth get bigger as it registers as home—the familiarity of the blue marble image contrasting with the unfamiliarity of the moon landscape.
From a science and technology point of view, the book is a great document about how the Apollo program worked and how humans reported actually interacting on another planet. By the time I learned about the Apollo program, it was more in a factual this is what happened, this is what we learned kind of way. Most of the human element had been taken out and we were left with discoveries about what moon rocks were made of and things like that.
Learning what it was like to drive on the Moon, how the dust looked and behaved, and what it was like to walk around is just as interesting as whatever we brought back. Seeing photos documenting what the astronauts were doing gives a much better sense of what the missions were like. So many high schoolers today list the Apollo programs as the historical event they’d most like to witness.* I can’t help but think that it’s because they know there’s more to it than just what we learn about it in school.
*Seriously. I have it on good authority that—along with writing about family members—this is one of the most-common college application essay topics.
That this book brings a lot of the wonder back to the events makes it one I’m happy to own and one I’m looking forward to sharing with people.