During the holidays I took time to go through some of the 8500 images NASA released during the summer on Flickr. They span from Apollo 7 to the final moon landing by Apollo 17. The images are not new but I guarantee that you have not seen the majority. They have also been thoughtfully organised and offered up in high-res.
They are marvellously crap…really. Probably 50% are wonky, out of focus, under, over exposed (ok, I know it’s tricky to shoot with big gloves and a helmet), there’s even the grubby slate/grey card shot back on earth when NASA loaded each mag. No cherry-picking for historic images, no grading or cropping, everything frame, the raw essence.
You are immediately hit by a sense of the photographer, the profound emotions of the moment coming through. The excitement; so giddy that they can’t hold the camera steady. Feeling the weight of responsibility to science - the same dusty moon rock shot over and over and over.
The fragility of the endeavour, the details of the lunar lander; terrifying, seemingly held together by duck tape and tinfoil. Or driving off in their groovy moon buggy and looking back to their tiny lifeboat, a shiny dot in an expanse of pallid grey.
As I delved deeper a small group of surprising images appeared; Apollo 13. Of movie fame, the ill-fated mission that nearly cost the lives of the entire crew. If you remember back, after an oxygen tank exploded crippling the Service Module, they had to abandon their lunar landing and figure out how to stay alive and return to earth (not enough power air or water). The first image that grabs you is the jury-rigged air filter (to remove carbon dioxide). Fans of the film will remember the tense scenes back on earth, scientists trying to create a filter out of spare parts.
The crew also had to power everything down, including heating, the haunting image of the darkened control panel or Commander James Lovell, crossed-arms trying to sleep in the cold.
How wrenching it must have been to take this shot, as close asApollo 13 ever got to landing on the Moon.
Preparing to re-enter the atmosphere, the crew jettison the Lunar lander, saying goodbye to the craft that was to take them to the surface but instead saved their lives.
From Apollo 15, the laser retroreflectors. These are still in use today, lasers are fired at the pad from earth, measuring the distance between. The Moon is spiralling away from the Earth at a rate of 3.8cm a year.
Active Seismic Experiment ASE - this is crazy. From Apollo 16, a geophone that records seismic activity (like a seismograph records earth quakes). The astronauts lobbed mortars around it, varying distances, (explosives being set off by guys in fragile space suits…what could possibly go wrong) to understand the internal structure of the moon.
Apollo 16 astronaut Charles Duke's family photo left behind on the moon
no quarters or controllers needed...
“...the question must be considered whether Rousseau's view of man as a fallen hopeless of philosophies. It leaves man a monster who has gone steadily away from his nobility. It is, I am convinced, more optimistic to accept Ardrey's view that '...we were born of risen apes, not fallen angels..."
One of the most enchanting visual effects techniques from the pre-digital age were cloud tanks. Any dramatic, swirling sky (like this image from Close Encounters) was created this way. I remember my father shooting them for many features. Watching miniatures being shot was always fascinating but the clouds unpredictable majesty made them very special.
My father would build a massive fish tank, hundreds of gallons; deep, more of a square than a rectangle. The glass would be distortion-free, museum glass. After the laborious task of cleaning and re-cleaning to ensure no dust was left in the tank, it would filled with filtrated water (obviously any particles, however small would catch the light). Once filled, set against black drape, camera positioned at a low angle, looking up at the underside of the surface; accurately creating the dramatic lighting and perspective of the shot that it would be composited into. Turning over at 50-100fps, white or grey paint (it could even be milk or cream) would be carefully poured into the water. Undulating near the surface the liquid would be swirled by a stick or pushed by a jet of water. It was wonderfully random, there was a refined talent to "puppeteering" the clouds; interpreting the dramatic brief, keeping it on the edge of visual reality (the coming of Gozer from Ghostbusters, below). Within 30 seconds it was all over, the paint would dissipate, the clouds ephemeral curvaceousness was replaced by a big tank of milky water...the long laborious process of re-setting would begin.
The artist Kim Keever creates and photographs marvellous water tank dioramas. Initially you are caught by their painterly landscape qualities, reminiscent of Romanticism or the Hudson School, an evolution of the tradition but of dreamlike primordial world. In close the rocks and trees reveal a primitive, subversive quality, a conceptual artifice.
We feel the grime on the glass, the inaccuracy of scale, the liquid filing the vista. Unlike the immersive quality of film effects, Keever reveals a miniature world that we recognise but know could never exist. They beautifully convey the transience, randomness of nature and creation...the fleeting wonder of the cloud tank.