Moon Shots

At the MFA, lunar imagery blurs the line between science and art

Despite the undeniable beauty of such photos (the high resolution color -- golds, blues and blacks -- plus all that shiny gadgetry make for some very seductive images), we can't really look upon these as works of art, since space photographs depict aspects of largely unknown celestial bodies. Since we have no knowledge of the object represented, we can't treat the image as if it were an imprint of that object. Conversely, photography as art has generally been thought of as a means of recovering the previously unseen, unsensed, immanent content of a thoroughly familiar world.

Still, three decades is a relatively short time for the perception of an object to change from clinical document to cultural icon. As such, we can't ignore our tendency to convert these images from objects of scientific investigation into objects of style. Thus, if they continually impress us with their consistently high horizon, their often artful massing of shadows and strange discontinuities between foreground and middle distance, they are also empty. This richly metaphoric emptiness calls to mind the documentary work of the masters of primitive photography -- Timothy O' Sullivan's images of the unsettled American West, Maxime du Camp's profile of the Great Sphinx of Egypt.

Yet because we confront the space photographs as formal images, they also disappoint us -- the color is often kitschy and some shots of the Earth's surface look like lava lamps. Most of the time, we're conscious not only of the moon itself, but also the conditions under which these pictures were taken, the experience of space travel. It's virtually impossible to look at these photos -- a close-up of Alan B. Shepard, the first American in space, during the Freedom 7 mission; Edward H. White performing the United States' first space walk with the aid of a gold-covered umbilical tether; Mae C. Jemison "sitting" on air amid walls of computers and equipment aboard the space shuttle Endeavor; Bruce McCandless flying free with the manned maneuvering unit far from the safety of his spacecraft -- without thinking about the sci-fi movies we've seen, from George Pal's Destination Moon to Stanley Kubrick's 2001. For film has not only given us an image of the moon that seems real enough; it has taken us there as well. Even at its most primitive, film has depicted not only the illusion of space, but also the illusion of movement within that space. With the "reality" of scientific photos and the "illusion" of sci-fi films, much of our fascination is displaced from the image itself to the process of obtaining it.

Significantly, both science and fiction attempt to annihilate the distance that separates us from the moon and the stars. Even so, no matter how often these NASA photos have been reproduced in the newspapers, the weeklies or National Geographic, we still know very little about the objects they incarnate. To all intents and purposes, their appearance and meaning remain opaque -- which is what makes these space photos so intriguing in the first place. They don't strip away a mask so much as construct one that manages to reduce the unimaginable to a snapshot. And thus they strike us as magical. Experiencing space photography allows us, in some way, to define an itinerary for the composition of the world, a sort of substitute metaphysics where the "beyond" is made literal not by seeing, touching or hearing, but by simply looking at a picture.

"Quest for the Moon and Other Stories" will show through February 5 at the Museum of Fine Arts, 1001 Bissonnet, 526-1361.

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