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Moon Shots

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

On June 2, 1966, Surveyor 1, the first of NASA's unmanned moon probes, came to rest on the lunar surface. Furnished with a video camera that featured a zoom lens, as well as a rotating mirror assembly, the robot beamed back thousands of images of the barren, pitted landscape -- the United States' first ground-level study of that forbidding region. The results are extraordinary objects, perhaps some of the most startling photographs to emerge from the late 1960s. The shimmering moon maps made from those photos, maps generated by a machine but made by hand, are like mosaics, comprising dozens of tiny (about two inches square) black-and-white pictures that have been stapled to sheets of paper according to a cartographer's specifications. They have a cold grandeur, but as experiments in real time -- the numbers at the edge of each bite-sized print refer to the hour, minute and second the image was taken -- these pictures have the mind-numbing objectivity of a scientific survey undertaken in the deepest desert.

Manufactured to scan the terrain for the manned Apollo landing in 1969, the maps exploded notions that the moon's surface would not support astronauts. For almost two years, the probes offered eyewitness accounts of the Earth's nearest neighbor under varied seasonal and light conditions. Today, the range of moon shots relayed by Surveyor possess as much history and romance as John Adams Whipple's 1852 daguerreotype of this incredibly beautiful and eerie place.

Both Surveyor's and Whipple's views -- and those that accompany them in the Museum of Fine Arts' exhibition, "Quest for the Moon and Other Stories: Three Decades of Astronauts in Space" -- provoke the idea of an imagery of space exploration, even an iconography of sorts. Organized by MFA curator Anne Wilkes Tucker with assistance from astronaut Joseph P. Allen and photographer and master printer Dennis Ivy, the exhibition consists of 91 works, ranging from the oldest existing daguerreotype of the moon (made September 1, 1849) to photos created by astronauts in 1994. Early scientific photographs, as well as images of NASA activities produced by internationally renowned photographers Richard Misrach, Garry Winogrand and Joel Sternfeld, are also included. Many images evoke romantic myths, folktales and religions inspired by the moon's ethereal light. Paul Caponigro's view of Stonehenge, Edward S. Curtis' photogravure of a Qugyuhl tribe dancing to restore an eclipsed moon, as well as Luis Gonzalez Palma's staged scene of a woman bound with rope to a crescent moon, suggest that art must have begun as nature, as the cosmos itself -- not as a formalized representation of the natural world, but as the actual relationship between humans and that world. Such images remind us that the moon has consistently been linked to the wild, to the unconscious and the irrational, to childhood and to the deepest sexual self, to the sources of meaning that continually escape us.

A number of the MFA images humorously depict the influence of space exploration in popular culture, representing the future as a time in which machines enable man to conquer all aspects of the physical universe. Consider Jim Stone's black-and-white photo of four "astronauts" on the space shuttle ride at Disney World. Looking like a bobsled team in an open-air Buck Rogers ship, the passengers seem like bit players in a vaudeville skit. Moreover, Kathleen Packlick's assemblage Let's Go to the Moon displays key images from the early years of the space program that make it seem very much like a kid's science project: a perky little boy, apple and glass of milk at hand, dons an astronaut helmet; Ham the chimpanzee is prepared for suborbital flight under the paternalistic gaze of NASA psychologists; the seven squeaky-clean Mercury astronauts line up in dazzling silver "storm trooper" suits; Neil Armstrong snaps a mundane pose of Buzz Aldrin Jr. on the moon.

The whole of this is encased in a hammered aluminum frame, thereby presenting the space program as potential cover material for My Weekly Reader and the astronauts as big boys at play. Recollections of Tom Wolfe's account of the astronaut experience, The Right Stuff, are unavoidable. Remember that the opening of the Manned Spacecraft Center and the arrival of the astronauts was about the biggest thing in Houston history -- the space program and the seven Mercury astronauts were going to make this town of oil and hard grabbers respectable and legitimate. U.S. Representative Albert Thomas and cronies welcomed them with ten-gallon hat salutes and a barbecue in the Coliseum featuring 30 cow carcasses and a performance by the famous stripper Miss Sally Rand. Often treating them as living shrines, tourists would scale fences just to grab handfuls of grass from an astronaut's backyard.

The bulk of the exhibition, however, deals not with the world that surrounded the space program, but the program itself, and the images seem to bear witness to the distance between science fiction and the visible results of scientific discovery. A photograph shows a seemingly faceless astronaut, Alan Bean, on the plains of Mare Procellarum, holding a lunar sample container; reflected in the surface of his helmet is the photographer, astronaut Charles Conrad, who also stands silhouetted, lit as if by artificial light against an uneventful lunar landscape and black lunar sky.

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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